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The WTC Cross, Your HR Policies and the First Amendment

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/12/2011

Our nation's 9/11 Memorial and Museum is nearing completion--it will open in 2012. A section of beam resembling a Christian cross has been moved to the museum's site. Atheists who find it repugnant and offensive have filed a lawsuit against it. As an HR manager, how do you moderate religious issues?

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    As the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Nears Completion...

    Well, it’s happening again: There’s another controversy surrounding the 9/11 tragedy, just in time for its tenth anniversary. This brouhaha brewed rather quickly in July, based on events that happened during the cleanup of the World Trade Center wreckage. Near the place where Tower 6 stood, workers at the site came across a section of cross beam broken off from adjacent beams. One leg of the cross was longer than the other three, reminding rescue workers of a Christian cross. They placed it upright amidst the rubble so that it stood over them during the grim cleanup of Ground Zero.

    In truth there were many broken sections and corners of beam, but for some reason this particular one drew people to it. According to American Atheists, Inc., a Franciscan priest named Brian Jordan blessed the cross in October 2011, “after construction workers at the site told him they saw the cross as ‘a sign that God never abandoned us at Ground Zero.’” Standing 17 feet tall, it has been named the World Trade Center Cross—the WTC Cross. And now the American Atheists are suing over it.

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    A NY Times story by Elissa Gootman describes that people actually felt comforted by its presence. They worked around it, prayed around it and cried around it. Father Jordan set himself with the task of blessing the remains of victims found at Ground Zero and also held services for those who wanted to worship. As quoted by Gootman, Jordan never elevated the cross’s significance, stating simply, “One person might pray in front of it; another person would just ignore it; another person might say, ‘What is this all about?’” People were free to regard the cross-shaped beam—this one and any others like it—however they wished.

    Approximately five years ago, the section of beam was removed from Ground Zero to rest outside a neighborhood Catholic Church. That was around the same time that construction began for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Recently, with the museum nearing completion for its opening in 2012, the WTC cross has been returned to the 9/11 site. On July 23, 2011, Father Jordan blessed it and it was lowered by crane into the basement of the museum.

    Three days later, American Atheists, Inc. filed suit with the Supreme Court of the State of New York in protest of the cross’s placement. The organization presents itself in the lawsuit—through the words of four representatives and their official mouthpieces—as promoting the civil liberties of atheists.

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    The Lawsuit

    Their action states, “Many of American Atheists’ members have seen the cross, either in person or on television, and are being subjected to and injured in consequence of having a religious tradition not their own imposed upon them through the power of the state.” The lawsuit then names two of the plaintiff-atheists who were raised in the Jewish faith who find it especially repugnant. A third plaintiff-atheist was raised in a Catholic household and likewise finds it repugnant. If they are true atheists—people who deny or disbelieve the existence of a supreme being—how can the matter of their religious upbringing contribute any significance to the situation?

    The fourth plaintiff-atheist’s brother worked in the 9/11 cleanup and later died from weakened lung syndrome, so he insists that any cross chosen to display in the museum must be of the Lutheran faith. Does this Lutheran plaintiff-atheist not see that a generic symbol of Christianity appeals to a broader base of people? Actually, as a nondenominational Christian, raised by a Catholic and a Methodist, I have absolutely no objection to a Lutheran cross; I just don’t know what makes it Lutheran rather than Christian.

    These religious atheists are, incidentally, not only suing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the governor of New Jersey who oversees the Port Authority, along with the City of New York and its Mayor and Silverstein Properties which owns the site of the museum. They are targeting the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for having the unmitigated gall to hold the competition that resulted in the design of the Memorial as well as the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and the World Trade Center Foundation. If that’s not enough, they are also suing Father Jordan and his associated Franciscan church. I better tell my mother not to stick her head out the door!

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    The Crux of the Matter of the Cross

    Of the 2,792 individuals whose lives were lost in 9/11, American Atheists stipulates that 500 of them were nonreligious. It has since offered several times to supply a nonreligious artifact to be admired or otherwise visited by those who are not religious. According to Gootman’s story, “perhaps such a monument would honor mankind with an atom, since we are all made of them,” says the American Atheists’ president, or perhaps a statue of a firefighter carrying a victim. And perhaps his idea has already been incorporated—I imagine an image of a firefighter might well find its way into the museum. Nevertheless, since the Memorial and Museum people repeatedly failed to respond to the American Atheists’ offer, the group has swiftly responded with this lawsuit.

    But that’s not all! The very sight of the WTC cross inflicts upon them episodes of “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish.” This is in addition to American Atheists’ protests that the WTC cross violates the separation of Church and State guaranteed in the First Amendment because it will rest in a government-financed facility.

    Which of these complaints propelled the suit, I wonder:

    • Could it be the placement of the artifact within a government-financed facility? It is, after all, a cross-section of beam from one of the buildings leveled by the terrorists.
    • Could it be the horrible dyspepsia and headaches experienced by the Catholic, Jewish, and Lutheran plaintiff-atheists? Have these people had no other cause of possible dyspepsia and headache? For example, if they have eaten at any Taco Bell or if they consumed any chocolate in the past five years, they could experience dyspepsia and migraines. Heck, maybe that’s all it is!
    • Or could it possibly, feasibly, perchance be the admittedly rude and intolerable failure of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum people to respond to the American Atheists’ requests to participate?
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    This Reminds Me of Pittsburgh...

    This will not be the first time that a group has implausibly implied an improper connection between Church and State. Let’s take a trip back in history to the City of Pittsburgh in 1988.

    Seven Pittsburgh residents sought the assistance of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the appropriateness of a Nativity scene displayed prominently in the Allegheny County Courthouse. Included was a complaint about a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah Menorah displayed in front of the jointly owned City-County Building. In front of the tree/Menorah display was a greeting from Pittsburgh’s mayor--a Jewish woman, incidentally--saluting liberty.

    The case wound its way through the legal system, ultimately landing in the collective lap of the US Supreme Court justices in mid-1989. That Court’s decision turned out to be the definitive liberal/conservative split. Four of the conservative justices had no problem with either display. Three liberal justices, plus conservative Justice O’Connor, felt the displays violated the separation mandated between Church and State.

    The remaining justice, liberal Justice Blackmun, approved of the tree/Menorah display because it included nonreligious decorations as well as the mayor’s “salute to liberty.” While Blackmun turned thumbs down on the Nativity scene because of its wholly Christian nature and its prominent display within the Courthouse, with several other justices adding their concurrence, the tree/Menorah display was adjudged acceptable.

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    Implications for the Workplace

    In the fallout of this, the City of Pittsburgh stopped having a Christmas season. Since then, to this day, it has a Sparkle Season. Can you imagine being at a tree lighting and singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Sparkle"? Or how about "The Sparkle Song", or even "Sparkle of Ages"?

    HR managers are awaiting the next chapter in this story. How do you manage the display of religious artifacts throughout your company? Are you required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to accommodate such displays, or are you mandated by the First Amendment to quash them?

    The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that no government entity will show favoritism for one religion over another. It also guarantees that the United States Congress will not establish a national religion. Those are the only things that the First Amendment says about religion, but fear of lawsuits is why so many businesses hesitate to permit non-secular displays during the holiday season.

    The First Amendment does not prohibit the display of a given religious item; it just requires that if one religion is honored, then all must be honored if employees so request. It also wedges a balance into the equation—a person does not have the right to display items of his religion if such displays interfere with the conduct of business. Many workplaces permit religious displays in nonpublic areas, away from customers or clients.

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    Separation of Church and State: Is This What It's All About?

    I wonder whether our Founding Fathers intended to stop displays like holiday scenes, or the WTC cross, or even prayer in schools. After all, the words “In God We Trust” have been on our money for more than 50 years, inspired by George Washington’s words at his inauguration more than 200 years ago. Every president in my lifetime has concluded his major addresses with words to “God bless America.”

    Possibly our forefathers sought to prevent religious heads from influencing decisions made by elected or appointed leaders—the kind of interference that the Pilgrims ran away from when they came here, and the kind of interference that we see in Iraq and many Muslim countries today. In the meantime, the WTC cross holds no religious significance if the viewer does not bestow it. Its stark protest against the 9/11 tragedy renders it a symbol of our nation’s greatness. As a cultural relic, it belongs in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

    The action by the American Atheists will cost the taxpayers even more money as the government defends against the suit at a time when we really can’t afford to spend money on frivolity. As this plays out, I'm hoping to see the Catholic, Jewish, and Lutheran plaintiff-atheists’ medical bills. And since the atheists will probably win their lawsuit, I'd like to suggest a generic, humanitarian, man-helping-man type of display: How about a big sign that says "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men"?

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