Rep. Michael Grimm wants to turn the ultimate 9-11 symbol of Christianity into a national monument.
Grimm (R–Bay Ridge) plans to introduce legislation this week to enshrine a cross-shaped relic uncovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center so that it can be installed at the new museum at Ground Zero.
The freshman congressman says that only federal protection can thwart a lawsuit from an atheist group that claims that displaying the Christian icon in a government-funded museum violates the First Amendment’s block on government-sponsored religion.
The American Atheists in July sued the Port Authority and the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, among others, after the Foundation moved the cross from a nearby church to the site of the museum, which will open on Sept. 11.
Critics have no problem with the cross itself, but rather with the impression that the government is promoting one religion over another by planting the symbol on government property — a problem that Grimm’s law only exascerbates, they said.
The museum was built partially with federal funds — and, as such, the atheists’ suit contends that installing the cross there endorses one religion, Christianity, over other faiths (and over the concept that there is no deity).
Rescue workers in the days after 9-11 found part of a crossbeam in the wreckage, and the icon became a divine symbol for some.
But when it was placed at the museum, it became a First Amendment issue.
“The cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land, diminishing the civil rights, privileges or capacities of Atheist Americans, Agnostic Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, and all others who are not Christian,” the suit claims.
Grimm countered that in the context of the 9-11 attacks, the cross is not a religious icon, but rather a symbol of “hope and freedom at a time when New Yorkers were coping with loss and destruction in the aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.”
But the atheist group was unswayed.
“A cross that is installed on a government site using government money and requires a Catholic ceremony to be installed is primarily a religious artifact, even as a national monument,” said Danielle Mathey, the group’s New York lawyer, who said the law would only embolden its cause.
The group said that the cross clearly favors the Christian faith. And the group’s national legal director said 9-11 was being used as an excuse to establish a national religion.
“They’re taking the horror of 9-11 and using it to market a cross as representing all religions, all suffering, all grief,” said Edwin Kagin.
Grimm pointed out that a Star of David cut from steel from one of the buildings, and a Bible fused to a piece of Trade Center steel would also be included in the museum’s display, but Kagin said the size of the 17-foot-tall cross would overpower the other artifacts.
“It overshadows everything else,” he said.
The establishment of a national monument is a legal protection typically reserved for naturally occurring phenomena like Mount St. Helens or man-made national icons such as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore.
There are no overtly religious symbols currently protected, though the Washington Monument has religious inscriptions in the stairway and a plaque bearing the words “Praise be to God” on its cap. And some nationally recognized monument sites have religious histories for American Indians or for Spanish missionaries.
But Grimm’s proposal crosses a line, critics say.
“What [Grimm] is trying to do is give government endorsement of the World Trade Center cross in the hopes that it will then somehow have a better basis for inclusion in the museum,” Mathey said. “Congress is simply just making one more law respecting a establishment of religion.”
In an interview last week, Grimm suggested that he didn’t have a problem with that.
“This is a country that was founded on a belief in God, period. Anyone that wants to dispute that, I wouldn’t waste my time with them,” he told the Brooklyn press corps last Thursday in his Dyker Heights office. “We are a country that was based on Judeo-Christian beliefs.”
At the same time, the Catholic Grimm offered a little bit of catholic egalitarianism, saying that the 9-11 anniversary ceremony on Sunday should include religious leaders from all faiths.
“There should be an imam there to say a prayer; I think there should be a rabbi there to say a prayer; I think there should be a priest there to say a prayer and anyone else that wants to pray in any language,” he said.