Players: David Silverman, the president of American Atheists; Joe Daniels, the president and chief executive of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The Opening Serve: On Wednesday, Silverman and the American Atheists (an Atheist organization that champions Atheist rights and civil liberties) filed a lawsuit demanding "equal representation" at the future 9/11 Memorial and Museum reports The New York Times. "They can allow every religious position to put in a symbol of equal size and stature, or they can take it all out, but they don’t get to pick and choose," Silverman said. The lawsuit is in response to plans for the museum to house a 17-foot T-shaped metal beam from the 9/11 wreckage which some media outlets call the "9/11 Cross." The Times indicates that the cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church, and Silverman's colleague asserts in a debate yesterday on Fox News that the cross has been blessed and worshiped--an ABC report confirms it was blessed in a nearby park. "The Christian community found a piece of rubble that looked like an icon and they deified it. But really 9/11 had nothing to do with Christianity," said American Atheists president Dave Silverman in an ABC news report. "They want a monopoly and we don't want that to happen." Silverman's lawsuit claims the cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land. "The WTC cross has become a Christian icon," said Silverman in a CNN report. "It has been blessed by so-called holy men and presented as a reminder that their god, who couldn't be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross. It's a truly ridiculous assertion."
The Return Volley: In response to the lawsuit, Daniels, the president of the memorial, said the cross was clearly of historical significance and that the lawsuit was "without merit." "We have a responsibility at the museum to use the authentic artifacts that really came from the site itself to tell the story of not only what happened on 9/11, but the nine-month recovery period," he said in The Times report, adding that the cross was an artifact with "very true meaning." ABC reports that Daniels said steel girders made into other crosses, Stars of David and possibly Eastern religious symbols would also become part of the museum, which will open in 2012 and will be primarily underground at the site.
This didn't sit well with Silverman's group."
What They're Fighting About: Whether or not the "9/11 Cross" is religious. Silverman believes it is, pointing to how it was displayed in the Catholic church. Daniels argues that the cross is a part of the history and a part of telling the story in 9/11.
What They're Really Fighting About: The rules regarding religious symbols and their place in memorials/museums; the acknowledgment of atheism as a belief system. Silverman wants an all or nothing approach when it comes to symbols--proposing that if there's an exclusion of one symbol, the inclusion of others look like a government endorsement. Silverman believes his group and the atheists aren't being acknowledged in the memorial. Daniels seems to be considering the inclusion of Stars of David and Eastern religious symbols into the memorial, but hasn't said whether he'd be open to including Silverman's proposed symbols.
Who's Winning Now: Daniels for now, but it's more or less by default. Silverman certainly didn't do himself any favors in dressing down God in the CNN statement. It's hard enough to discuss 9/11 without triggering emotions or reactions (see: Cordoba House). Telling people their God didn't stop a devastating terror attack and that their beliefs are "ridiculous" isn't going to get you very far or win you many fans--especially when you are making an argument for tolerance. But that's not to say that Silverman doesn't have a point; if Daniels's organization includes only certain religious symbols and ignores others, it sends a mixed message about respecting the individuals who died at the site. Daniels and his organization will have to be careful and sensitive when planning what (if any) religious symbols are going to be on display at the memorial next year. Also of note, Silverman's group previously protested the "Seven in Heaven" street-naming in New York City for seven first-responder firefighters who died--saying that the street-naming links Christianity and heroism.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.