Published June 21, 2011
A group of New York City atheists is demanding that the city remove a street sign honoring seven firefighters killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because they say the sign violates the separation of church and state.
The street, “Seven in Heaven Way,” was officially dedicated last weekend in Brooklyn outside the firehouse where the firefighters once served. The ceremony was attended by dozens of firefighters, city leaders and widows of the fallen men.
“There should be no signage or displays of religious nature in the public domain,” said Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists. “It’s really insulting to us.” Bronstein told Fox News Radio that his organization was especially concerned with the use of the word “heaven.” “We’ve concluded as atheists there is no heaven and there’s no hell,” he said.
“And it’s a totally religious statement. It’s a question of separation of church and state.” He was nonplussed over how his opposition to the street sign might be perceived – especially since the sign is honoring fallen heroes. “It’s irrelevant who it’s for,” Bronstein said. “We think this is a very bad thing,”
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, agreed calling on the city to remove the sign. “It implies that heaven actually exists,” Silverman told Fox News Radio.
“People died in 9/11, but they were all people who died, not just Christians. Heaven is a specifically Christian place. For the city to come up and say all those heroes are in heaven now, it’s not appropriate.”
“All memorials for fallen heroes should celebrate the diversity of our country and should be secular in nature. These heroes might have been Jews, they might have been atheists, I don’t know, but either way it’s wrong for the city to say they’re in heaven. It’s preachy.”
City leaders seemed dumbfounded by the atheists’ outrage because no one complained about the sign as it was going through a public approval process. “It’s unfortunate that they didn’t raise this as an issue while it was undergoing its public review either at the community board level or when it came before the City Council on their public agenda,” said Craig Hammerman, the district manager for Brooklyn Community Board 6.
Hammerman told Fox News Radio that the community was “solidly behind this proposal. Not a single person stood up to speak out against it. I think it’s a little late in the process for someone to be bringing this up now.”
“When you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t,” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz told Fox News Radio. “These seven brave souls who put their lives on the line and ultimately gave up the most precious gift that could be given, believe me are in heaven for serving us so admirably,” he said.
Criticism of the sign brought condemnation from Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“There are cities that have religious connotations in their names, why not a street,” Land said. “Do they want us to rename Los Angeles, Corpus Christi, and St. Joseph?”
He added, “In a country where 85 percent of the people say they are Christian or claim to be Christian, should it be surprising that you name cities and streets with religious terminology.”
Silverman said he would not be surprised if atheists are vilified for their criticism of the street sign – suggesting they were simply being patriotic. “If we’re opposed to this sign, we’re somehow opposed to honoring the heroes,” he said. “The attacks on 9/11 were an attack on America. They were an attack on our Constitution and breaking that Constitution to honor these firefighters is the wrong thing to do.
“The patriotic and right thing to do is to obey our own law and to realize that we are a diverse nation, a melting pot full of different views,” Silverman added. The local and national atheist organizations said they’ve offered alternative names that would still honor the firefighters, but without any religious affiliation.
Bronstein suggested they call the street, “We Remember The Seven – 9/11.” He said that would be “more appropriate.”
But the city has no intention of removing the sign. If that’s the case, Bronstein said he may consider a lawsuit.