NYC Mayor Bloomberg: No Clergy Participation at 9/11 Memorial Service

Posted: Aug 25, 2011 11:21 AM

Within weeks, Americans will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the atrocities of September 11, 2001.  New York City's planned memorial service is embroiled in controversy, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has chosen to exclude members of the clergy from speaking or praying at the event.  Unsurprisingly, this decision has sparked outrage across the city:

Religious leaders are calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reverse course and offer clergy a role in the ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Rudy Washington, a deputy mayor in former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration, said he's outraged. Mr. Washington organized an interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "This is America, and to have a memorial service where there's no prayer, this appears to be insanity to me," said Mr. Washington, who has suffered severe medical problems connected to the time he spent at Ground Zero. "I feel like America has lost its way."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has publicly criticized the mayor about the list of speakers, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has quietly sought to play a larger role.  But the exclusion of religious leaders has struck some as particularly glaring.  City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a pastor at New Life Outreach International, a Bronx church, said he is "utterly disappointed" and "shocked" by the event's absence of clergy. When the terrorist attacks occurred, people in the city and nationwide turned to spiritual leaders for guidance, he said.

Not so fast, the Mayor's office says, this controversial proscription is no different than the way official city 9/11 memorials have been conducted in recent years:

City Hall officials, who are coordinating the ceremony, confirmed that spiritual leaders will not participate this year—just as has been the case during past events marking the anniversary. The mayor has said he wants the upcoming event to strike a similar tone as previous ceremonies.  "There are hundreds of important people that have offered to participate over the last nine years, but the focus remains on the families of the thousands who died on Sept. 11," said Evelyn Erskine, a mayoral spokeswoman.

This seems like a reasonable explanation to me, even though I strongly support the inclusion of religious leaders at the event.  If we cannot join together in prayer and spiritual reflection on a day as weighty -- and even sacred -- as this, then we really have lost our way.  Bloomberg, who so far has not budged from his position on this question, has also been a vocal supporter of the construction of a divisive "Ground Zero Mosque."  I've long argued that although Imam Rauf and company have the legal right to construct a house of worship in the former shadow of the towers that were destroyed in the name of Islam, cultural sensitivity and common decency should persuade them to reconsider their plan.  They have not, and Bloomberg fully supports them.  He's consistently blasted those who've questioned the propriety of Rauf's designs:

Mayor Bloomberg won’t stop talking about the mosque near Ground Zero, harshly attacking opponents yesterday who “ought to be ashamed of themselves.”  Sounding more supportive of freedom of religion than freedom of speech, Bloomberg said, "I just don't think the government should tell people where they can pray and where they can build houses of worship.  "It is a shame that we even have to talk about this," the mayor added on his WOR radio broadcast.

The clear perception is that Muslims are being officially applauded for flouting the wishes of most city residents and building a monument to their faith in a building that sustained damage during the 9/11 attacks, while Christian, Jewish, and other faith leaders are being denied the opportunity to participate in a memorial service for the victims.  While it's obviously not a totally apt comparison, I can understand why many New Yorkers are seething.  The mayor's office has issued explanations for both decisions, and in a vacuum, each sounds logical -- setting aside Mayor Bloomberg's sneering condescension.  Considered together, however, the two policies certainly feel wrongheaded.  The easy solution?  Relent, and invite an ecumenical clutch of religious leaders to offer prayers at the ceremony.  I fear Bloomberg's massive ego and general tone-deafness will preclude him from doing the right thing. 
My, how far we've "progressed" in a decade.