In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some workers and mourners at the World Trade Center site seized upon a cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble as a symbol of faith and hope.
Using a crane, construction workers lowered the World Trade Center cross into an underground section of the new 9/11 museum.
For the past five years, the 17-foot-tall cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church. On Saturday it was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.
But the move quickly provoked a lawsuit from American Atheists, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey. It argued that because the cross is a religious symbol of Christianity and the museum is partly government financed and is on government property, the cross’s inclusion in the museum violates the United States Constitution and state civil rights law. The lawsuit, in turn, provoked the ire of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm, as well as others.
Now, the dispute over the “World Trade Center cross” is becoming the latest in a string of heated conflicts over how to memorialize the Sept. 11 attacks. It comes less than two months before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and in the wake of a feverish debate over the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque within blocks of the trade center site.
Marc D. Stern, who is the associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and has long studied church-state issues, said the lawsuit presented “an extra-difficult case.”
“It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history,” he said. “It’s also very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.”
Ira C. Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and an authority on faith and the law, described the lawsuit as “plausible.” The outcome, he said, could depend on how the beam was displayed when the museum opened.
“If the cross is presented in a way that ties it to the history of its discovery and the religious perception of it by some firefighters or neighbors, then the museum would be framing it as a historical artifact, rather than as a symbol deserving religious reverence,” Professor Lupu said. “I think if it were framed in that way, it could be effectively defended on the merits.”
The atheists’ lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, lists multiple defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
“The challenged cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land,” the lawsuit charged.
David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the suit’s goal was either the removal of the cross or what he called “equal representation.”
“They can allow every religious position to put in a symbol of equal size and stature, or they can take it all out, but they don’t get to pick and choose,” Mr. Silverman said.
And if atheists could put a symbol in the museum, what would it be? Perhaps an atom, Mr. Silverman suggested, “because we’re all made out of atoms,” or maybe a depiction of a firefighter carrying a victim. “It would be about helping,” he said. “It would not be derogatory against any religion or anybody.”
The Port Authority, which owns the land where the museum is being built, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said the city had not yet been notified of the suit. Joseph C. Daniels, president and chief executive of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, said that the cross was clearly of historical significance and that the lawsuit was “without merit.”
“We have a responsibility at the museum to use the authentic artifacts that really came from the site itself to tell the story of not only what happened on 9/11, but the nine-month recovery period,” he said, adding that the cross was an artifact with “very true meaning.”
“It provided comfort to hundreds and hundreds of people who were working in some of the most hellish conditions imaginable,” he said.
The Rev. Brian J. Jordan, a Franciscan priest who began holding Mass by the cross in September 2001, described the lawsuit as “the bizarre ramblings of angry minds.”
“One person might pray in front of it; another person would just ignore it; another person might say, ‘What’s this all about?’ ” he said.
The American Center for Law and Justice said it planned to file a brief in opposition to the atheist group’s lawsuit. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the group, said the suit was “bordering on the absurd.”
He pointed to parts of the lawsuit naming four individual atheists, who are described as having suffered “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack.”
“They want their day in court,” Mr. Sekulow said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a long day.”