Millions of Americans know the story of the Ground Zero Cross, the twisted steel beams that fell from the wreckage of the World Trade Center on 9/11, beams in the shape of a cross. Fewer, however, know that this cross is now at a different “Ground Zero” – Ground Zero of an atheist attack on our religious past, and our religious future.
Found by excavator Frank Silecchia and consecrated by Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan Priest, it grew to become a symbol of hope and comfort in a very dark place and in a very dark time. The Washington Post explained:
"Each week, Father Brian held services there. He became the chaplain of the hard hats. Whenever crews working to find the dead needed a blessing or a prayer or absolution, Father Brian would offer it. Sometimes victims’ families came to pray. The congregations grew from 25 or 35 to 200 and 300.
"Men cut replicas of the cross out of ruined steel and carried them in their pockets. Even Rich Sheirer, then New York’s director of the Office of Emergency Management [and Jewish], appreciated the cross. “Intellectually, you knew it’s just two pieces of steel, but you saw the impact it had on so many people, and you also knew it was more than steel,” he says."
In other words, the Ground Zero Cross is a real object, with real – indisputable – historic meaning in the aftermath of 9/11.
And that brings us to perhaps the less-famous and undoubtedly more bizarre part of the story. In 2011, a group called American Atheists sued the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in an effort to keep the cross out of the Museum.
Hurling invective at Christians, Christianity, and faith in general, these extraordinarily angry atheists even claimed the mere existence of the Cross in the Museum caused them “dyspepsia” and “headaches.”
After more than a year of litigation, a federal judge dismissed American Atheists’ lawsuit, with the court noting: "The Museum's purpose is to tell the history surrounding September 11, and the cross … helps tell part of that history."
The court properly concluded that the cross did not violate the constitution. "No reasonable observer would view the artifact is endorsing Christianity," the court said. The fight isn’t over, however, with the atheists vowing to appeal.
To those who follow constitutional law, the judge’s ruling was both welcome and expected. After all, museums screen their collections for historic significance, not for religious content, and their highest and best purpose is to educate Americans about our heritage, not to serve as instruments of secular propaganda. No reasonable person views religious art in a museum as a sign that the museum endorses any particular religious message.
Yet as important as the past is, this case is also about the future. Unless this lawsuit is defeated resoundingly – not just defeated in court but also thoroughly rejected by the public and politicians – future museum curators will think twice about telling the truth about America’s religious heritage.
Even worse, as even more public spaces are cleansed of religious symbols – perhaps out of fear of lawsuits – future generations will receive a loud and clear message: There is something inherently offensive about faith.
In fact, sending that message is a key goal of these extraordinarily angry atheists. Sure, they want legal victories, but the lawsuits are a means to an end. The goal is nothing less than the secularization of American culture, the shaming and mocking of faith right out of the American heart.
Resisting this atheist agenda isn’t merely a matter of litigating in court – though that is of vital importance – it’s also a matter of personal and public perseverance. Never respond to invective with invective, but also do not reward condescension and outrage with silence and acquiescence.
Americans are a religious people, perhaps the most religious in the developed world. And it is because – and not in spite of – of our faith that we have grown to respect and preserve individual liberty, including the liberties of our atheist fellow citizens.
Our Creator has endowed us with our liberty. It would be a deep and lasting shame if fear of lawsuits caused us to reject those God-given liberties and drive our Creator from the public square.
Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on constitutional law. He also serves as a member of President Trump’s legal team. Follow him on Twitter @JaySekulow.