9/11 Memorial Street Sign Upsets Local Atheists

Atheists argue "Seven in Heaven Way" street oversteps church-state boundaries

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Players: Red Hook, Brooklyn; local atheists.

Opening Serve: Local atheists are angered by a new street sign in Red Hook, Brooklyn that commemorates seven firefighters who died on 9/11. American Atheists' David Silverman told the Brooklyn Paper: "It's improper for the city to endorse the view that heaven exists. It links Christianity and heroism." Ken Bronstein of the NYC Atheists agreed, arguing "It falls under the umbrella of Church and state." He explains, "the problem with the sign is that you're assuming that you know what they felt deep down. You're assuming they even believed in heaven."
Return Volley: But Tom Miskel, a member of the Red Hook community board, begs to differ. He told the local paper, "they are heroes and should be rewarded in a place like heaven. Almost every religion has some form of heaven. It's not just specific to Christianity."
What They Say the Fight's About: The atheists think the sign's mention of heaven is both presumptive and exclusionary to those who don't believe in God. They also argue that sign's religious connotation--since it's city property--infringes on the barrier between church and state. Miskel and other community supporters of the sign insist that the notion of "heaven" is not religion-specific and is simply a respectable way to honor a group of men who gave up their lives to save others.
What The Fight's Really About: Well, is the local Red Hook government blurring the line between church and state? Gothamist sought out the spokesperson for City Councilmember Sara Gonzalez--who "shepherded the street sign change through city council"--and asked him whether "it's inappropriate to use city resources for a sign with religious overtones." He explained that "The seven heroes have long been known as the 'Seven in Heaven.' That's something we didn't have any hand in, it is the way the community and their families chose to remember them. So if that is their desire then we are happy to continue to remember them in the way that their family and fellow firefighters prefer to call them." On the other hand, the Brooklyn Paper points out that "more than 400 streets in the city have been named after 9-11 victims and heroes--cops, elevator mechanics and civic leaders--some of whom died helping people escape from the towers. But few, if any, street names make such blatant faith-based references." Ultimately, to say the idea of heaven is not religion-specific is also a bit of a dodge: many religions include a concept of heaven, sure. Not all of them do, though, and in any event the point here is that even supporting religion over lack of religion can be offensive: atheism is a matter of beliefs, too.
Who's Winning Now: The atheists look poised to lose this one. Victor Kovner, a First Amendment lawyer weighed in on the debate, telling the Brooklyn Paper, "the area of religion is so complex and nuanced that you could argue nearly anything. But a [legal] challenge in this case would be far-fetched."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.