Despite Atheists’ Best Efforts, the Ground Zero Cross Can Stay at the 9/11 Museum


The 17-foot-high, 4,000 pound cross fashioned from a column and a cross-beam recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center can stay at its new home at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, a federal appeals court has ruled. The decision brings an end to a lawsuit from the American Atheists, who in 2011 sued a whole bunch of people and agencies, including New York City, the Port Authority and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the cross, which they argued was an illegal religious monument in a government-funded museum.

The American Atheists’ lawsuit was already
dismissed by a federal judge in 2013. But they appealed that decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled yesterday that no, really, the cross can stay.

The hefty cross was recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers and blessed by Father Brian Jordan, who’d been ministering to victims at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It was first set in front of a church, where Jordan held masses in front of it, and then moved to an airplane hangar in New Jersey that housed World Trade Center artifacts destined for the 9/11 museum. It’s now part of an exhibit at the museum called “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero.”

According to Judge Reena Raggi, who wrote the Second Circuit’s opinion, despite the cross’s cross-ness, it’s display at the 9/11 Museum isn’t religious. Instead, she wrote, its purpose “has always been secular: to recount the history of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath.”

The American Atheists argued, though, that displaying a cross while not acknowledging that atheists also died in the World Trade Center attacks was tantamount to government endorsement of religion. During oral arguments in the case, they asked for a plaque in the museum that would recognize that atheists also died on September 11.

Judge Raggi didn’t buy it, pointing out that unlike the cross, there was no atheist symbol found at the Trade Center site, “no distinct artifact from which atheists, as a group, drew hope and comfort in the aftermath of September 11.” She added, “this is not a case in which appellees have chosen to display a symbol of hope embraced by religious believers at Ground Zero while at the same time refusing to display a symbol of hope embraced by nonbelievers at Ground Zero.”

In a statement to the Voice, American Atheists said they were “disappointed” by the ruling, which they called “an example of Christian privilege.”

“The court relied on the words of religious persons, ignoring statements to the contrary from atheists, that a Christian cross is comforting to the non-religious population. The opposite is true,” American Atheists President David Silverman is quoted as saying. “Atheists died on 9/11, members of our organization suffered in lower Manhattan on that day, and our members helped with the rescue and recovery efforts-yet we are denied equal representation in the National Museum. There are no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than this decision and the refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11.”

Seeing the cross, though, is by no means an easy feat these days– it might be the hardest thing to get to inside the newly-opened 9/11 Museum. You have to wait in line to buy the $24 ticket, assuming you are an adult and not trying to pass as a college student (then it’s only $18). Once you have your ticket, you shuffle through the airport-like security, head down the escalator to the Atrium Terrace, and if you’re wearing a backpack or carrying shopping bags, you’ll be directed to wait in another line for the coat check — bring $1 per bag for the suggested donation if you feel guilty about that sort of thing. There’s a tip bin. Once you’ve hung your bags, you’ll walk to the elevator and go down to the C-4, or bedrock, level. Then, at the mangled Ladder 3 firetruck, you’ll see the entrance to the heart of the museum: the “September 11, 2001 Historical Exhibition.”

The stuff up to now has been the easy part. The Historical Exhibition is a winding trail divided into three sections (the day-of, Before 9/11 and After 9/11). The day-of area will give you the most pause. Metal signs count the minutes after 8:46 a.m., when Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. You’ll walk past a TV showing a blank-faced Matt Lauer (with hair) telling America about the “breaking story” and past the people quietly listening to voicemails left by people in the towers.

You’ll then have to walk through the Before 9/11 room and past the “Rise of Al-Qaeda” video narrated by Brian Williams. You’ll have to walk past the glowing illustrations showing the hijacked planes making paperclip turns back toward New York. You’ll have to walk into the third-and-final section — “After 9/11” — a hall that’s filled with makeshift memorials and pictures of victims and first-responders.

Then, just before the doors to the exit, you see the cross. If you’re looking for it, it feels like the big reveal. It’s easily the biggest structure before you leave the exhibition and head back up to the ground level.

You aren’t allowed to take pictures of the Ground Zero Cross, or anywhere in the exhibition for that matter. Security is sentineled throughout the exhibit and maybe if the idea of having your bag and phone confiscated is a little unsettling, you’ll have to just remember its image.

Additional reporting by Nick Lucchesi.