Atheists sue over 'Ground Zero Cross' in museum
It was the towering charred steel beam shaped like a Christian cross that became a symbol of solace and hope after it was found jutting out of the smouldering debris of the World Trade Centre.
But the so-called Ground Zero Cross is now at the centre of a church-state row as a leading American atheists' group sues over its inclusion as centrepiece in the new National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
"The overwhelming impression of this cross is religious," Edwin Kagin, the national legal director for American Atheists, told a New York federal appeals court.
"We are worried about the alienation being suffered by atheists. This cross screams Christianity, but there were perhaps 500 or 1,000 people who died in this tragedy who were not Christians.
"It's dangerous for this to be in a government-backed display. This is about an endorsement of Christianity. What is wrong with having a plaque that says 'atheists died here, too'?"
The crossbeam, a familiar sight for visitors to Ground Zero for more than a decade, has already been installed in the new museum before its much-delayed opening in May.
American Atheists is demanding that if the 17ft-high cross is not removed as a religious symbol from the state-owned property, the display should be altered to add an atheist monument of similar proportions.
The group brought the appeal under the US Constitution's first amendment that separates religion and government after a lower court ruled that placing the cross in the museum did not breach the clause because the artefact had "secular purpose".
Mark Alcott, representing the museum, which is run by a foundation and receives public funding, said: "The curators decided to place this object in the museum because they believe it was an important part of the history of this story.
"Rescue workers took comfort in this remnant of the building structure and they prayed to it as a religious object.
"But there is a difference between displaying an artefact of historical significance and saying we want you (the public) to bless it – museum goers understand that distinction." (© Daily Telegraph, London)