NEW YORK — When the Empire State Building lights up, reaching 102 stories into the Manhattan sky, people lift their eyes and guess what that night's colors might mean — a holiday, a charitable cause, maybe a Yankees win or a birthday.
But sometimes, color turns to controversy.
Tens of thousands of people are in an uproar about the building owner's refusal to light New York City's tallest skyscraper in blue and white to honor Mother Teresa in August on what would be her 100th birthday.
"The Empire State Building celebrates many cultures and causes in the world community with iconic lightings, and has a tradition of lightings for the religious holidays of Easter, Eid al Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan), Hanukkah, and Christmas," owner Anthony E. Malkin said in a statement Wednesday.
But the real estate mogul said the privately owned building "has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations."
The lay advocacy group Catholic League, which requested the lights for Mother Teresa, countered that individual religious figures have, in fact, been posthumously honored at the Empire State Building: Cardinal John O'Connor in 2000, with the red and white colors of his position; Pope John Paul II in 2005, with the tower lights symbolically extinguished; and famed Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr. with red, black and green.
An e-mail sent to Malkin spokesman Daniel Hernandez Lyon asking about religious figures being honored was not answered Wednesday.
The League first asked for the lights in February and was denied.
Anyone can apply to have the building illuminated for what's dear to them. But the privately owned landmark considers selection "a privilege, not an entitlement," according to the website with the application form.
Applications are evaluated by the Empire State Building Co., which says online that decisions are made "at the sole discretion of the ownership and management."
More than 40,000 people have signed a petition in support of the special lights for Mother Teresa.
Cindy Caprio, an aspiring young actor who works as a hostess at a bar facing the Empire State Building, says she spends her night shift at the door greeting guests — and seeing the colors above her change daily.
"I don't always know what the colors mean, but I look up every day, and I love it," she said Wednesday. "I can usually figure it out for the Fourth of July or the Yankees. And I sometimes guess right."
And when she goes home to Hoboken, N.J., across the river, she can still see the Empire State Building, glowing from afar.
On Wednesday afternoon, New York City Council members voiced their disagreement with what they see as a snub of the ethnic Albanian nun who worked for the poor and the sick while living in India. She died in 1997 and was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church — a step toward possible sainthood.
"I just think it's a really wrong-headed decision that (Malkin) has made," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.
"I don't think this is about religion," Quinn said. "Mother Teresa was a nun, obviously, but she was much more than that; she was a Nobel Prize winner ... who inspired people of all religions."
Quinn was backed by City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who said "the only person who could forgive the Empire State Building for this boneheaded decision would be Mother Teresa."
League President Bill Donohue said Malkin's policy "is being made up on the run," but the building owner is "not going to get away with it."
The League is applying for a permit to protest at the foot of the Empire State Building on Aug. 26, Mother Teresa's birthday, hoping to fill West 34th Street from Fifth to Sixth avenues.
Until then, the building will keep a tradition started in 1964 of flooding its highest stories with light from sunset to midnight, using computerized LEDs — light-emitting diodes — that can produce millions of colors and patterns.
Decades ago, only nine colors were used, with maintenance workers walking on parapets to hand-install colored lenses on floodlights.
Today's lights are controlled from a computer console, but the magic remains.
Depending on the season, it's blue and white for Hanukkah, red and green for December, yellow and white for spring, pink and white for breast cancer awareness.
Last year, the building was bathed in red and yellow — the colors of communist China — to mark the 60th anniversary of its founding. That decision created a controversy that matches the current one.
When Frank Sinatra turned 80, the Empire lavished Ol' Blue Eyes with blue light.