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

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“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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Reader Feedback

Rob from Greenpoint says:
This lawsuit is one of the most ridiculous things I've
ever heard of. Get a life, morons.
July 5, 2011, 8:54 am
Scott from California says:
Who is to say that those seven people were all Christian? The sign is insulting. They should have gone with something along the line of Seven Heroes Way.
July 5, 2011, 11:18 am
Fred from Boston says:
Yeah! Lets all die and go to heaven. Cool!
July 5, 2011, 11:26 am
Bryan from Financial District says:
wow... people have way too much time on their hands to argue about this kind of stuff. I'm an atheist and work in the legal profession... although this lawsuit may have some legal merit, I think it is absolute nonsense and a waste of time and energy of an already overburdened judicial system.
July 5, 2011, 11:43 am
ME from Manhattan says:
The sign should not go up because we all know that www.GodIsImaginary.com and he resides in the www.EvilBible.com
July 5, 2011, 11:48 am
Worthy of a Repeat from Manhattan says:
www.GodIsImaginary.com and he resides in the www.EvilBible.com
July 5, 2011, 11:48 am
Eddie from South Bk says:
Agree with Scott that "Seven Heroes Way" would have been better. And that's even aside from any religious considerations.

"Seven in Heaven" sounds like a bad joke or a bad-movie title; at best, it sounds like a childish take on religion. It says nothing about who the street was renamed for or why ... and yes, those memories will fade over the years, as residents and the neighborhood change.

"Seven Heroes Way" would have dignity and would remind people of these men's heroic actions *in life,* and the reasons for it -- not just that they're dead (and were memorialized via a flippant rhyme).
July 5, 2011, 4:36 pm
John J. Burkard from Red Hook says:
I understand the families of some of these fireman were instrumental in selecting the signage. The fact that they put up any signs at all was a miracle, knowing how the DOT likes to disappoint people..... As to those so called atheists, next time your in Red Hook, take a walk just two blocks away to Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church. Though your actions are frowned upon, we understand your frustrations. It is lonely when so many believe and you happen to be the minority that's out of step. Come to Visitation, and learn what a joy it is to be a Christian
July 6, 2011, 2:27 am
Soapy Johnson from USA says:
BREAKING NEWS: Ground Zero mosque to move, source confirms ... http://placeitonluckydan.com/2011/07/breaking-news-ground-zero-mosque-to-move-source-confirms/
July 6, 2011, 10:47 am
Mike from Maspeth says:
And to think we wouldn't have had this incredibly stupid story if Natalie O'Neill hadn't gone out of her way to create the first incredibly stupid story by asking the atheists if they had a problem with this! So does this make Natalie a reporter, a newsmaker, or what?
How low can you go? How low can you go?
July 6, 2011, 11:17 am
Me from Failtown says:
Fail troll fails
July 6, 2011, 4:26 pm
Jay from Manhattan says:
Keep up the good work Ken. These psychotic religious fanatics are the cause of the 9/11 attacks. Why would we recognize their sacrifice with more religious fanaticism? Religion must go!!!
July 6, 2011, 5:09 pm
CG from Bronx says:
Take that sign down!
July 6, 2011, 6 pm
CG from Bronx says:
The sign SHOULD say something like "Brave Seven Way."
July 6, 2011, 6:02 pm
AreYouSerious says:
Atheist should know that they are not the only damn religion in the nation, and if you ask me just like how we should keep Christianity out of government we should keep atheism out as well what's next: sanction for the burning of all paper money..........stop trying to control peoples lives
July 7, 2011, 9:39 am
Socratease from Reality says:
No Jack, it really is. You believe certain dogmas just as "blindly" as you accuse others with religious beliefs of doing. Step down from the ivory tower and join us commoners.
July 7, 2011, 12:04 pm
Socrates from Reality says:
I am so gay!
July 7, 2011, 4:17 pm
Jack from Bay Ridge says:
AreYouSerious wrote: "Atheist should know that they are not the only damn religion in the nation, and if you ask me just like how we should keep Christianity out of government" (etc)

Inserting a Christian afterlife in a public street sign is keeping Christianity out of government?
July 10, 2011, 1:44 pm
Jack from Bay Ridge says:
John J. Burkard wrote: "Though your actions are frowned upon, we understand your frustrations. It is lonely when so many believe and you happen to be the minority that's out of step."

Uh, our Constitution intentionally *protects* minorities.

And when Catholic immigrants first arrived here en masse, they were a "frowned-upon" and "out of step" minority in a majority-Protestant country. They didn't feel "lonely," or less-than, or underserving of rights -- any more than atheists now do or should.

In fact, be careful of what you imply. If you base rights and "norms" on the majority, only U.S. Protestants count -- since they're the by-far majority.
July 10, 2011, 2:03 pm
2brooklyncats from cobble hill says:
happy to report that as of this week the sign remains ... before getting bent out of shape about 1 sign on a small street in front of a fire house where few will even see this thing ... why not go on a campaign to change EVERY STREET and EVERY CITY in the Country with any inference of religion in it before bothering these people tucked away in Red Hook ... what ever happened to majority rules ... Whether you believe the term "Seven in Heaven" is childish, etc. is irrelevant as this is the term that was chosen long ago by those who lost these men ... "Seven in Heaven" has been the term used by all the local firehouses to refer to these 7 men who perished in the attack ... and other houses have dedications re "Seven in Heaven" in their stations as well ... on their doors ... in their artwork ... HAVE SOME RESPECT! ... Oh yes ... I am indeed an ATHEIST!!
Sept. 9, 2011, 11:17 am
——heae from muslim says:
Fuc* the war religon causes this sign is a threat to atheist existance! fu*k you youre like that ass in 1st grade who went around sayign santa clause is fake and made fun of others for believeing in him.
Oct. 18, 2012, 6 pm

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