A simmering controversy surrounding the "Ground Zero Cross" exposes the intolerance and absolutism behind ongoing battles over religious symbols on public property. Contrary to popular belief, it's not Christian conservatives who normally start these bitter disputes. It's more often atheist activists who seek to alter the long-standing status quo by scrubbing the landscape of the most visible signs of the nation's religious heritage.
American Atheists, an organization representing the civil liberties of agnostics, filed suit in 2011 to block display of the Ground Zero Cross anywhere on the grounds of the new memorial museum planned for the World Trade Center site. The artifact in question became the best known piece of debris recovered from the terrorist attacks, when workmen spotted it on Sept. 13, 2001. The huge cross beam, presumably detached from the collapse of the North Tower and hurled down with many tons of rubble onto the stricken eight-story structure to its northeast, somehow survived intact and almost immediately became an informal shrine for the tireless crews who labored to clear Ground Zero.
A Franciscan friar blessed the welded girders as a sign that "God had not abandoned Ground Zero." Later, with the cross installed on a city-approved pedestal, millions of tourists came to pray or leave flowers, but as construction proceeded at the World Trade Center, a crane helped to move the giant welded girders to nearby St. Peter's Church in 2006.
The lawsuit insists the relic must remain where it is, but planners for the new museum, supported by many 9/11 families, want the cross returned to Ground Zero as part of the permanent memorial. The lawsuit cites "mental pain and anguish" suffered by the plaintiffs due to "the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack."
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League, which often takes a dim view of religious symbols in government-owned locations, declared that it "fully supports" the inclusion of the cross in the museum.
On my radio show, Edwin Kagin, national legal director for American Atheists, denounced the potential placement of the cross as unfair because there would be no comparable display of atheist or Muslim symbols. But no one happened to recover atheist symbols (whatever they might be) from the rubble. The cross deserves its unique place of honor because of its powerful historic connection to the first dark days after the terrorist attack.
Moreover, America's leading government-funded art museums all boast collections of sacred objects, including icons, crucifixes and altar pieces exhibited for their historical and artistic significance.
Had fate shaped the steel beams into any form other than a Christian cross, American Atheists would never think to object to its museum display. The group's visceral hostility to the cross plays a role in a number of continuing controversies:
•In Woonsocket, R.I., the Freedom From Religion Foundation seeks to remove a World War I memorial topped by a cross that has stood without controversy on city property since 1921.
•In the Mojave National Preserve in California, officials are hoping to settle an 11-year dispute over a "desert cross" first erected on Sunrise Rock in 1934, also to commemorate the sacrifices of those who served in the Great War. In a complicated agreement, private parties have pledged to donate 5 new acres to the 1.6 million-acre federal reserve in return for title to the single acre on which the cross formerly stood before vandals destroyed it. Veterans groups hope to restore the monument, but they must first enclose the area in a chain-link fence with signs explaining that the cross stands on now private property.
In each of these fights, it's the opponents of long-standing religious displays who seek to impose their narrow views on the rest of us. It hardly amounts to an effort to impose theocracy when people of faith defend monuments that have inspired passersby for generations. In the case of the Ground Zero Cross, for religious believers, the artifact they honor played a prominent role in the haunting imagery after the terror attacks.
Meanwhile, secular extremists seek to erase such imagery from the collective consciousness and to purge public places of religious reminders. For skeptics, prominently displayed crosses convey the uncomfortable message that the great majority of Americans still honor a faith that self-proclaimed free-thinkers hold in undisguised contempt.
Beneath all the hypocrisy over constitutional restraints and traditional walls of separation, secular activists and self-styled defenders of "civil liberties" seek to transform American society in a way that our Founders and most subsequent generations would never recognize. They seem eager to defend flag-burning, obscenity and every other form of radical expression, while seeking to suppress emblems of the Christian faith that helped shape the nation since the arrival of earliest colonists.
An experiment in enforced secularism might count as a bold departure from the nation's God-haunted past, but it's hard to believe it would produce a better country than the beloved, multifarious and clashing religious symbols that have always characterized our faith-based pluralism.