Religious Law

Cross-shaped beam found in 9/11 rubble may be displayed in Ground Zero museum, 2nd Circuit says

A federal appeals court has found no establishment clause violation in the government’s museum display of a cross-shaped beam found in the World Trade Center rubble after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its opinion (PDF) on Monday that the 17-foot high column and cross beam was an artifact and its display had a secular purpose—to recount the history of the attacks and their aftermath. The court turned down an argument by the American Atheists that the National September 11 Museum could not display the cross absent some item acknowledging that atheists were among the victims and rescuers. The New York Law Journal, CNN and the New York Daily News have stories.

A plaque at the museum recounted the history of the steel cross. Construction worker Frank Silecchia had discovered the cross on Sept. 13 during the search for survivors. Volunteers mounted it onto a platform a few weeks later, and it came to be regarded as a symbol of hope, faith and healing. A Franciscan priest held religious services there that were open to all people, though the religious services were not mentioned in the museum display.

In ruling against the American Atheists, the court found that the establishment clause does not command that “government accounts of history be devoid of religious references.” The cross was part of an exhibit with hundreds of artifacts and a reasonable observer would view the display as “ensuring historical completeness, not promoting religion,” the court said.

The New York Daily News contacted Silecchia, who now lives in South Carolina, for comment. “Faith won over atheism,” Silecchia told the newspaper. “I’m kind of proud because that was my initial goal: to help ease the burden of humanity. All I can do is thank God for answering my prayer.”

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