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 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.