Heaven help them! Atheists plan suit over city’s ‘Seven in Heaven’ street sign

God’s country? Red Hook street gets heavenly name
Photo by Tom Callan

“Heaven” can wait.

Manhattan-based atheists are poised to sue the city for installing a street sign in Red Hook that endorses the religious view that afterlife exists.

To honor seven firefighters who died in 9-11, a portion of Richards Street was renamed “Seven in Heaven Way,” a move that prompted criticism, national news coverage — and now an apparent lawsuit from atheists who say the sign is akin to spiritual “product placement.”

“We see religion imprinted in our culture from the time we’re young enough to remember,” said Ken Bronstein of NYC Atheists, who has met with lawyers and plans to file a lawsuit over what he considers a church-and-state issue. “We can show injury — and the impact of what the city is doing.”

The dedicated street sign — which city officials hung on June 11 at Seabring Street — pays respect to seven fallen firemen assigned to Engine 202 and Ladder 101.

The honored firemen — Joseph Gullickson, Brian Cannizzaro, Salvatore Calabro, Thomas Kennedy, Patrick Byrne, Joseph Maffeo, and Terence McShane — were among the first to arrive at the Twin Towers, pulling victims from the rubble before the second airplane hit.

Community Board 6 unanimously supported the name change in December, 2009, and the City Council soon followed.

“They are heroes and should be rewarded in a place like heaven,” said CB6 member Tom Miskel.

City officials and civic leaders say that the men have long been known as “The Seven in Heaven,” and that any debate over the sign — which was sponsored by Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D–Sunset Park) and voted in by the city council months ago — has long been settled.

But that’s why local atheists, who insist public signs should be non-sectarian, are gearing up for a legal fight, proclaiming that the government should not be in the business of promoting any religion.

“Taxpayers are paying for this sign, so we’re paying for this message to be broadcast,” Bronstein said, comparing it to an advertisement for Christianity.

Lawyers are lining up to offer the city free representation, proclaiming the sign does not violate the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“I understand that [NYC Atheists] have threatened the city with legal action,” attorney Richard Mast wrote to the city last week, offering pro bono representation. “The city may honor the bravery of its fallen heroes.”

First Amendment case law suggests that government must allow both religious and non-religious speech when it opens a forum for expression — provided it’s clear that religious references are attributed to the individuals making the expression, not the government.

That could make Bronstein’s case tricky.

“A challenge would be unsuccessful,” said First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner, who has represented companies such as HBO and Clear Channel in First Amendment cases. “In my mind, it’s far-fetched.”

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