Planet Princeton

Atheist Group Threatens Litigation Over Princeton 9/11 Memorial

9/11 steelThe  New Jersey-based group American Atheists has threatened to sue the town of Princeton if it allows a piece of steel from the World Trade Center with a cross cut out of it to be displayed on public land without allowing other symbols to be displayed at the site.

Bruce Afran, the lawyer for American Atheists, sent a letter to Mayor Liz Lempert and the press last night expressing the group’s opposition to Deputy Fire Chief Roy James’ proposal to place the steel, with the cross visible, on public property as part of a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11 World trade Center attacks.

“While a steel girder certainly is an appropriate image to bring to mind the tragedy of that day, the image of the cross carved into the approximate center of the girder, as shown by published photographs, inevitably imbues the image with religious content in a memorial to the dead of 9/11.” Afran wrote. “Use of a religious symbol for such a purpose on public land is barred by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits public acts establishing religion.”

“The proposed memorial will contain as a central image the carved space forming a crucifix, a widely known, if not universal, symbol of Christianity. While the image of the cross on the girder is the space remaining after a cross was carved from the girder, it nonetheless presents the indisputable image of a cross on a memorial for those who died in the attacks of 9/11 – a religious image in remembrance of the dead,” Afran wrote. “It goes without saying that the image of the cross is a common religious feature on the graves of the deceased who adhered in life to a Christian faith. The municipality may see the image of the carved cross as representing the historical story of the carving of crosses for distribution to those whose loved ones perished at the World Trade Center. I understand that the municipality is considering a plan to place a descriptive plague or informational stand explaining the practice at the memorial. Such reasoning merely enhances the religious message and image of the girder and does not avert the Constitutional violation.”

Afran says that 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 would be grossly offensive and alienating to many people.

“That the municipality believes explanation is required in an effort to diminish its religious impact, merely underscores the impropriety of such image on public property,” Afran wrote. “It is a simple but undeniable fact that vast numbers of the dead of 9/11 were not Christians and were members of many other faiths or were atheists or had no faith…Such a symbol cannot be but offensive and alienating to many of the families and friends of these many dead.”

American Atheists and their local members have demanded that the girder not be placed on public land or be subject to the use of public funds unless it is placed in a designated free speech zone that will enable members of all other religious, non-religious creed-based and philosophical groups, including American Athiests, to place their own memorials with their own unique symbols in memory of the dead of 9/11.

“Such free speech zones have appeared in many communities, have been easy to manage and have resulted in an expansion, not a limitation of speech. Indeed, a policy of plaques in a free speech zone will enable a multiplicity of memorials truly reflecting the diversity of the community,” Afran wrote. “My clients do not wish to bar absolutely the display of the girder with the cross thereon, but to make certain that it is part of a general speech zone that will include other religious and non-religious groups, including American Atheists’ own memorial plaque.”

Afran said in the absence of clear and explicit agreement for such a proposal, and a set of guidelines that will implement such agreement, American Atheists will go to court to seek temporary and permanent restraints upon the municipality from placing the girder on public land or making use of public monies in connection with the upcoming 9/11 ceremony. He has asked officials to respond about plans by Sept. 3.

The piece of World Trade Center steel in question was brought to Princeton in March of 2012. James has been working on a proposal to create a memorial for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, with the steel beam being the centerpiece of the project. He has proposed that the memorial be located on state property near the Princeton Battlefield Monument, but that requires approval from the state, which has denied the application.

One alternative proposed by local officials is to place the memorial on town property near the old Borough Hall. But behind the scenes officials have been developing plans for the old Valley Road School, which include demolishing the building, expanding the firehouse,  and moving the Princeton First Aid Rescue Squad to a new building there. Officials want the memorial located at the expanded firehouse. No one has said how the town will pay for the expansion project. A citizen finance advisory group has cautioned officials that the municipality’s debt service needs to be brought under control.

James, who is Jewish, has argued that the cross is not just a Christian symbol. He said it is part of history and should not be hidden. But he also told officials at a meeting last month that if the visibility of the cross is a stumbling block for the project, it could be hidden if necessary. The total cost of the memorial would be about $75,000. James hopes to raise the money from private donors one he has approvals for land for the memorial. He wants to borrow money from the town to fund the project and then pay it back once the money has been raised from donors.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • SFB

    First, the story describes an undocumented Honduran migrant worker, who was employed illegally by a local temporary labor company belonging to a Mr Roy James, and subsequently mauled by pet dogs while working at the home of the brother Guy James. (The dogs subsequently mauled Guy James’ mother-in-law as the James family fought a change in the law to restrict dangerous pets.)

    Under the assumption that the petitioner is the same Guy James as in the story linked above, does he still run a recruiting company that employs undocumented workers? Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal to illegally employ undocumented workers. I think it is, because usually there is exploitation involved. When one of those workers ends up getting mauled by dogs, that looks even worse to me. I have concerns about funding a guy who has a track record of ignoring the law.

    Second, Mr James has asked for $75,000 of Princeton taxpayers money. I am a Princeton taxpayer. Is that true for Mr James? I believe that he lives in Kingston. Why does he want to put a 9/11 monument in an adjoining municipality, where he doesn’t live or pay taxes? Is there already a 9/11 memorial in Kingston or something? This seems very strange to me.

    All this fuss, which will is drawing Princeton into dispute with the state, and now Bruce Afran (again), and has Princeton residents yelling at each other on blogs, has come about because Roy James has decided it would be appropriate for Princeton to have a 9/11 memorial.

    Can somebody please make it 100% clear for me:
    1. Has Roy James’s company stopped hiring undocumented workers?
    2. Does Roy James live in municipal Princeton?

  • Blake Cash

    I believe the “cross” is an integral part of the beam, a chain hook used in moving beams by crane.

    It’s not even a religious symbol, unless you’re paranoid.

  • Blake Cash

    Nice try at parsing.

    “Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion'” does not refer to respect of a religion, it refers to passing a law establishing a religion.

    Has anyone complained about menorahs, a symbol of one of the smallest religions in the world? You are offended by majorities, because you in someway feel spirituality is a democracy?

    I SWEAR TO GOD they told me people in Princeton were more intelligent.

  • That story is about Guy James, who appears to be Roy’s brother. But, how is this relevant to this article.

  • Blake Cash

    Okay Khurt (sorry, no umlaut on my keyboard),

    Absolutely. I characterize the thought police as a hate group. Because they THINK that all intersecting lines will be seen as an expression of a religion, they think they have a right to prevent that association from being made.

    Would there be complaints if there was a crescent, or a star (six or five pointed), or an Ankh? This is preemptive action, a violation of international provisions that not only is one innocent until proven guilty, they are innocent prior to an offense. ,

  • BLAKE!

    I am not arguing that it is or isn’t a religious symbol. I am arguing that this group has a RIGHT to challenge the placement of this beam if they think that it WILL be seen as a religious symbol.

    This conversation here seems to be in favor or characterizing the organization as a “hate” group and making ad-hominem attacks on the organization.

  • Blake Cash

    That’s one point of view, there are around seven billion others. Your acceptance of a memorial IF it is altered so that a working feature doesn’t offend you because it resembles a religious symbol, is a phobia. The only people “highlighting” the chain hook are the atheists.

    Perhaps you should check a dictionary and rethink your definition of “religion”. It is a system of beliefs, and at least six percent of the world’s major religions do not believe in a deity.

    Sorry you had no interest in a constructive conversation, you’ve looped back to your initial fear of intersecting lines, a fear shared with vampires.

    If you’d like some other points of view, you might try reading my series on world religions, the fourth chapter which touches on Atheism is published tomorrow, the first chapter is here:

    http://kblakecash.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/religions/

  • Atheism isn’t a religion. Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. Hence, ultimately, a non-religion.

    Religion is an expression of the traditions and rules concerning the worship of a deity that one believes exists.

    I think if the “cross” shaped hole was covered or filled in this group might drop the suit. If that does not appease them, then I would question their motivations.

    However, I would also question the motivations of any grouping seeking to highlight the “cross” shaped hole.

    At the end of the day, it’s a hunk of metal. It can only have meaning because humans have given it meaning.

  • Cheryl

    The memorial should have no religious connotation whatsoever- it should serve only to memorialize those whose lives were lost- not any particular religion.

  • the ghost that never lies

    I am always amazed at the perceptions of people who somehow see some sort of cultural creeping theocracy in our nation. What color is the sky in your world?

    I can only think that you have not live on this earth for a very long time. I also think that there is a parallel in the attitudes of present day radical secularists with how puritans were described as those who were worried that “someone, somewhere is having a good time”; the modern secularist is always on the lookout that “someone, somewhere may be expressing their religious beliefs publicly”
    Those who have beliefs that, based on their religion, proscribe certain behaviors, particularly public behaviors. Fifty years ago, it was seen as a legitimate function of the law to establish “community standards” and enforce cultural behavior. It was, in fact, referred to in the supreme court decisions that were instrumental in dismantling many of these laws.
    Behaviors that were proscribed almost all have religious beliefs as their source. These behaviors used to include rules of marriage, sexual behavior and public obscenity. They were also the source of much of our nations commitment to ending Jim Crow and other elements of public discrimination. Little by little, secularists have attempted to remove any religious elements from the ability of the government of address social mores.

    Today we have ironclad protections for almost any public expression of any sexual behaviors. Any and every behavior, from good old nudity to aberrant behavior that was once the territory of Psychopathia Sexualis is available to any and all 24/7. The first amendment has been stretched to cover all sorts of nasty expression, but somehow has managed to exempt the political speech (campaign finance laws) it was written to protect.
    People who wish to raise a family where they are not bombarded by profit generating pornography are told it is their responsibility to remove themselves from the larger society. In fact, the only place where one is allowed to use the larger culture to establish what is considered to be acceptable behavior is in the realm of race. Imagine for a second if sexual speech that is judged to be culturally harmful was given similar treatment as the much more stringent requirements of racial speech.
    In short, the libertines have won so much and for so long that some people see any minor, temporary reprieve by their opponents as an attack.

  • the ghost that never lies

    Has anyone seen the web page of the group who is launching this lawsuit? American Atheists apparently though that an appropriate symbol would be one based on scientific “fact” as opposed to what they call superstition and lies. So what did they choose? A cartoon of a “Bohr atom”- you know what this is, it’s that thing that looks like four small balls orbiting a larger one at the center.
    What cracks me up is that this model of the atom is acknowledged to be utterly wrong by physicists, but is used as the reality of what the atom is cannot be meaningfully represented by a picture. In other words, it, (like all of science) is a necessarily imperfect representation of a concept that is ultimately unknowable by mere humans-it is an allegorical representation of a piece of what we see as true. Kind of like the concepts of religion.
    I have no problem with secularists; those who put their money on the methods of knowledge taught by science; that is for each of us to decide. What amazes me is the foolishness and arrogance of those who overestimate their understanding of both religion and science and treat so much the body of though of mankind over the last 5000 years so glibly.

  • Blake Cash

    So you agree that this is a frivolous lawsuit.

    Were it a truly religious symbol, this wouldn’t be frivolous, and the “American Atheists” would have my empathy, but such is not the case this time.

    You do not follow my train of thought. This is not about ANY legal challenge, or ANY item, it is a frivolous action, brought by either hate, paranoia, a desire for publicity, or all of the above.

    In our twisted common language, a lack of agreement has become equivalent with fear which has become equivalent with hate. I don’t make the rules, but I expect them to apply equally to all groups.

    I am currently writing a series on religions, this week’s chapter will include atheism. If you would like to contribute, please contact me through Krystal.

  • “..bringing legal action against any display is easily interpreted as hate”

    Look. I agree that the piece of metal isn’t a religious symbol. The “cross” is incidental.

    However, if I follow your train of thought, then any legal challenge to any attempt by a governmental body to use public funds to put in any TRULY religious item would be considered hate?

  • Nanya Biznez

    @Jandre: Either you didn’t read the US Constitution or you don’t wish to quote the text exactly as written: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

    Putting up a display for ONE PARTICULAR religion is “respecting the establishment thereof.”

    What I see in America today is the tyranny of the majority in the form of the display of symbols of their particular religion along with the excuse that it’s their right of religious freedom. If it were religious freedom then the majority would have no problem with the minorities displaying other symbols along side it. This request usually garners an outcry from the majority who find it offensive that others would like the same opportunity they have. They usually scream that their right to religious freedom has been abridged.

    Another hallmark of these people is their inability to see that by virtue of their sheer numbers, they are trampling the rights of those who are not in their group. When others point this out, they are immediately decried as whiners.

  • Blake Cash

    It shouldn’t be, but bringing legal action against any display is easily interpreted as hate. There is not a crusader hiding behind set of intersecting lines,

    Your beliefs are unimportant to me, as mine should be to you.

  • “intersecting lines a symbol of a religion that they hate,”

    Not believing is not the same as hating.

  • SFB

    Can somebody please tell me if this is the same Roy James who features in this horrific report:?
    http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2008/06/a_not_so_great_gatsby.html

  • Jandre

    To all those out there that have never actually READ the US Constitution, there is no separation of church and state. The First Amendment states… “Congress shall make no laws establishing religion, nor interfere with the free expression thereof. To all you atheists out there, Atheism IS your religion. So giving into their demands would be no different then allowing the Catholics to force their views on anyone.

  • Keaton

    I’m sure a lot of people from New Jersey had loved ones who died on 9/11 so it doesn’t matter if it happened a year ago or a decade ago people are still mourning. It’s not an attempt to remember the acts of terrorism on our country, its an attempt to remember those who lost there lives.

  • bxdanny

    Princeton didn’t carve the cross, people in NYC did. That they did so is part of the record of those days, so I don’t have a problem with the beam containing the cross cutout being displayed by the Town. I am a strong supporter of separation of church and state, but this objection just makes atheists look petty and foolish.

  • Blake Cash

    Rather than accept that perpendicular lines exist, this group is threatening the town with legal action (public fund expenditure) unless a park is designated (public funds expenditure) where they can express their beliefs.

    I have as much right to be offended by a group that sees every set of intersecting lines a symbol of a religion that they hate, as they have to spread their hatred.

    I have known intelligent atheists, they do exist. But forcing recognition of beliefs is wrong, no matter who is doing it. Much like people who see racism when a mixed race family is in a cereal commercial. It’s time to lighten up.

  • This is an ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of attacking his argument). Attacking the character or past of Bruce Afran does not invalidate his group’s argument.

  • “I find it offensive that a particular group of atheists wish to use government funds to establish a belief that there are no symbols of religions.”

    I’m trying to understand this comment. How is group of atheist using public funds to establish a belief that there are no symbols of religion?

  • Thank you for your comment. The lede was not meant to be inflammatory and the story was written basically following the line of argument in the letter written by the lawyer. I have added a few words to the end of the lede. Again, thank you for your feedback, which is always welcome.

  • superserial

    So brave of you to show such tolerance.

  • Gee

    9/11? Really? Wasnt that, ummmm, divide by 5, carry the 2, like, over a decade ago? Didn’t we already do enough damage to this country turning that sad day into an unending justification for an unattainable security no one in their right mind would ask for? If OBL were alive, he’d be laughing out loud watching us destroy ourselves from within via our futile response – trying to wage an unending war against a tactic and turning our once free country slowly into a surveillance state.

  • Stephen

    Ugh. 9/11 memorials are universally tacky. This cross business is just doubly offensive, but Princeton shouldn’t even be considering a memorial in the first place. Have some class, Princeton.

  • Princeton1776

    Bruce Afran is the same attorney hired by the Princeton Battlefield Preservation Society to defend their bogus Milner Report. He’s an expert at distorting history, sort of an F. Lee Bailey wannabe who thought suing for slave restitution was a good idea.
    He’s just trying to gain publicity. Considering Princeton’s 300+ years of history of supporting religious freedom, from the Quaker origins, you would think this lawsuit would be laughed out of town.

  • Blake Cash

    The cross is also universally known as a useful chain lock, and may have no religious significance at all.

    I find it offensive that a particular group of atheists wish to use government funds to establish a belief that there are no symbols of religions. This lack of understanding contributes to prejudices against intelligent atheists, who wish for coexistence with those of different faiths.

    Just as there are radical muslims, and radical christians, there are radical atheists. It would be improper to concede to the demands of any of these groups.

  • Princeton Resident

    Dear Krystal,

    I write this with complete respect and admiration for you and Planet Princeton. You are an invaluable resource to our community!

    However, I’m a little bit concerned. The beginning of this article makes it sound like the Atheist group is completely against the memorial and will sue the town if it goes up. Period.

    But by the middle of the article it is clear that the group is not completely against the project, and is just asking for a speech-free zone if it does go up. That does not seem to be asking for much.

    As an Atheist/Secular Jew, when I read the first paragraph, I was actually quite upset with the Atheist group, thinking they were completely against the memorial. This was because of the wording of that first paragraph. It wasn’t until I made it through most of the article that I understood what is happening and realized that what they are asking for is quite balanced, and that they are supportive of the memorial if there is a speech-free zone.

    Could it not have said:

    “The New Jersey-based group American Atheists has threatened to sue the town of Princeton if it allows a piece of steel from the World Trade Center with a cross cut out of it to be displayed on public land, unless a free-speech zone that would be inclusive of all religions would be associated with the memorial.”

    It is commonly thought that all Atheists are against religion. That is not true. But unbalanced writing, such as that of this article – particularly the first paragraph – can easily cause people to immediately feel that way, and fuel the flames of anti-Atheist sentiment. As I said, I actually thought the group was anti-religion when I read it at first.

    Additionally, I agree with Roy James’ viewpoint that the cross should not be hidden, and wonder why he proposes that it is covered, rather than supporting the inclusive speech-free zone concept suggested by the Atheist group.

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