A Jewish firefighter who wants to display a Christian cross as part of a New Jersey 9-11 memorial is facing stiff opposition from a group of atheists who called the religious image “grossly offensive.”
The American Atheists are threatening to sue Princeton, NJ if they proceed with plans to erect the memorial. They took issue with a beam that was salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center because a cross had been cut out of one side of the beam.
“This particular beam has a religious symbol on it,” American Atheists president David Silverman told Fox News. “They have a beam with a religious symbol and that makes it a religious icon.”
Silverman said placing the beam on public land would be a “clear violation of the separation of church and state.”
He also said the cross symbol would send a terrible message to non-Christians. He said the city would be giving the “appearance that all of the people who suffered and died on 9-11 and their families are being memorialized by a Christian symbol.”
“That is wrong,” Silver told Fox News. “That is un-American.”
American Atheists attorney Bruce Afran sent a letter to city leaders warning they may file a lawsuit to stop the memorial.
“While the intention to commemorate those who died at the World Trade Center is admirable and appropriate for a community, the use of such a singular religious image will be grossly offensive and alienating to many people,” he wrote in a letter published by The Times of Trenton.
But Princeton Deputy Fire Chief Roy James said the cross symbol has nothing to do with religion.
“I’m a Jew,” he told Fox News. “Ironically, I’m fighting to have this cross there because I believe that someone’s story is behind that. That story needs to be told. It has nothing to do with religious faith. It has something to do with telling history.”
James came up with the idea for a memorial several years ago. Last year, he got permission from the Port Authority to acquire a beam from the World Trade Center.
“We had to sign a paper saying we would take care of it and respect it,” he said.
The cross had already been cut out of the beam before it arrived in Princeton. James explained that in the days after the terrorist attacks, symbols like the cross and the Star of David were routinely cut out of the beams and given to family members.
“We got a historic piece,” James said. “There’s so much behind that. If we do not show the cross, we are leaving out someone’s story. We are basically saying someone’s emotions that day didn’t matter.”
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
However, several council members expressed concern to The Times of Trenton about the threat of a possible lawsuit. One council member feared that displaying the cross could seem like the government promoting one religion over another.
Silverman said way for the city to avoid a lawsuit is to create a free speech zone where plaques representing all religions could be posted.
“I think that makes the monument better and it also makes the monument legal,” he said.
One suggestion involved putting a plaque next to the beam explaining the cross symbol in its context. However, American Atheists objected to the compromise.
“The problem is you can’t allow a city to obviously endorse one religion and then put up a disclaimer saying they are not doing it,” he said. “Anyone driving by the memorial would not see the disclaimer.”
Last March, the American Atheists lost a battle to have a giant cross made from World Trade Center beams removed from a memorial museum in New York City.
The atheists argued the cross was a “government enshrinement of the cross.” A Judge disagreed and threw out the case.
And in 2011 a group of New York City atheists objected to a street sign that honored seven firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks.
They alleged the street sign, “Seven in Heaven Way” was insulting to atheists. The city refused to change the name of the street.
James said he’s been frustrated by the threats from American Atheists and stressed that the Princeton memorial is about “trying to remember those that died that day.”
“I’m not forcing people to go and visit the memorial,” he told Fox News. “If people get offended by it, they don’t have to go.”
The beam is being stored at a Princeton fire station while city leaders determine their next step.