Let Freedom Ring… By Respecting Religion

By Karen Federman-Henry

This week brings with it events worthy of celebration and remembrance. The “Star Spangled Banner” celebrates its 200th birthday, while we again honor those who lost their lives so tragically on September 11, 2001. Each milestone sparks patriotism and appreciation for the foundation upon which this country rests — the protection of a number of freedoms and the separation of powers to ensure adequate checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

Along with this separation of powers, the United States has taken pride in maintaining the separation of church and state as a means of avoiding the religious persecution that the early colonists sought to leave behind. Despite the effort, periodic blurring of the line occurs, as demonstrated in the debate about prayer in the schools, the refusal of health insurance coverage for birth control, displays of the Ten Commandments on government-owned property, and even whether the Pledge of Allegiance should remove the reference to God.

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit faced the daunting task of evaluating whether the National September 11 Memorial & Museum – located at the site of the World Trade Center, which fell on that fateful day – could display an artifact denominated as “The Cross at Ground Zero.” As you may recall, a 17-foot-high column and crossbeam that were attached in a way that appeared to many to form a Christian cross was retrieved from the debris of the World Trade Center. During the days and months of the search for survivors, and then remains, many workers and friends and families of the victims found solace and comfort in the artifact.

The challenge to the display in the museum came from a group of atheists who viewed it as a promotion of Christianity and, therefore, a violation of the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion. They also claimed that the display violated the Equal Protection Clause because it was not accompanied by any artifact to commemorate the atheists who perished that day. The group acknowledged that no such artifact exists that would symbolize the deaths of atheists.

In American Atheists, Inc. v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., No. 13-1668-cv (July 28, 2014), the Second Circuit upheld the inclusion of the artifact in the museum display, based on a number of factors. The Court noted that the cross had become not only a symbol of Christianity but also one of hope and healing to many individuals. The museum houses a number of items reflective of the day, including personal items, portions of the building, mangled vehicles, and an American flag. Among the exhibits, which reflect various emotions, is one titled “Finding Meaning” that includes the crossed beams. Overall, the context of the display does not favor a particular religion or establish a religion, but represented one of the many views of that period of time.

Moreover, the display met the three criteria established by Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), needed to pass constitutional muster. The display had a secular purpose — a reflection of the emotions experienced on September 11, 2001, and how people focused their healing. The principal effect neither advanced nor inhibited religion. Finally, the display created no excessive entanglement between the government and religion.

It remains to be seen whether the case will find further review in the U.S. Supreme Court. When considering questions about the line between church and state, however, the old saying that “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it” seems to ring true. By acknowledging differing views, this country cultivates the freedoms that formed its foundation.

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