“A Hill Worth Dying On”? The WTC Cross Suit

You’re probably aware of the lawsuit against the World Trade Center Cross filed by the organization American Atheists. There have been many passionate arguments in favor of the lawsuit. There has also been much criticism, even from the likes of would-be allies like Jon Stewart. In fact, some were so mortified by the suit that they publicly and privately made death threats against the organization and atheists in general.

The question remains: Is the lawsuit accomplishing the goals of American Atheists? What responsibility comes from naming an organization “American Atheists,” anyway?

Although the media rarely reports in headlines, the WTC Cross lawsuit actually has two outcomes favorable to atheists: Either equal representation is given to all faiths (and the organization filing suit has even offered to fund an atheist statue) or the 17-foot cross formed by a huge chunk of the WTC steel is housed outside of the National Memorial and Museum.

Before I lay into American Atheists  (a group I honestly don’t typically find upsetting), I would like to voice that I think the 17-foot “found” cross is a disgrace to put into the memorial.  Photos of it with adornments after the tragedy would have been far better to include in the historical section, while the large cross could be housed in a place of Christian worship. My reasoning is not only the fact that people of all faiths died on 9/11, but also that the addition of such a large monument to Christianity further emphasizes the role of religion in the ongoing War on Terror. We would do well to remember that radical Muslim terrorists did not attack Christians to make a war on Christianity: They attacked the United States to make war on Western civilization–and, partly, on imperialism and interventionism.

On another note, do Americans want a section of the memorial for the Muslims who worked and worshiped inside the WTC only to killed on September, 11? Should erecting this cross and further dividing the two sister faiths comfort Muslims, as the sign above claims it will?

So, if the cross is wrong, what is wrong with the American Atheists lawsuit?

As an organization promoting the interests of atheists–or, allegedly doing so–is this high-profile case worth fighting? Is a cross in a historical museum so bad? Might the cross have been alongside a secular description of the faith of many people who found comfort in the cross? A description that, while it does point to a majority, also shows a culturally significant historical view on religion at the time of September 11 and in the time of great need?

When viewing the legal philosophy of American Atheists, I can’t help but wonder how this lawsuit actually fulfills the organization’s reasons for filing suits. Here are some excerpts:

We will respectfully decline to do battle on any issues other than those where the facts and the law will compel a favorable ruling, no matter how biased the court against us. And thus we will, brick by brick, rebuild the Wall.

For every case presented to us, we must ask, “Is this a hill worth dying on?”

Litigation is expensive. We do not need to waste thousands of dollars on lawsuits that, given the facts at issue, the state of the law at this time, and the disposition of a given court, are doomed to certain failure. And in losing such actions, we do not need to be in the position of creating even more bad law for our descendents to clean up.


There are plenty of civil liberties abuses against Atheists around these days. Far more than we can handle. Many abuses are better addressed by protests, letter writing, political action, interviews, debates, oratory and by using all of the free speech options still left to us, rather than by reflexively resorting to legal actions.

We can afford to be picky and wait for those fact situations that fit clearly into the entire body of both written law and common law. In short, we should wait for cases that we can win based on the present state of the law. Then we can make some positive changes.


There of course may be certain exceptions to this policy. We will litigate, regardless of consequences, if a situation should arise that is so egregious we cannot let it pass unchallenged. We will litigate if the perceived consequences of not litigating would be worse than the possible adverse consequences of litigating. This will have to be based on sound legal judgment and decided on a case by case basis.

There are in fact some hills worth dying on.

While I agree that the precedent set by a win in the WTC Cross case would be most favorable to future civil rights battles, it’s difficult to say that this case is a clear win. For instance, if the cross is deemed to be a historical artifact worthy of a museum, haven’t American Atheists just lost the case, as well as credibility.

And if the case never went to court, could this have been “so egregious”? Could something less aggressive than a lawsuit have been done?

The death threats from Fox News viewers and the feigned outrage by Fox is to be expected. When Jon Stewart uses the incident and misconstrues the facts–by saying atheists want to take down or “replace” the cross rather than to have a multi-faith display–I must pause. Is the already despised minority atheist population becoming more hated because this lawsuit was even mentioned? Is this lawsuit more important than other cases around the country?

And while you expect groupthink attacks against all atheists from the less-cultured Fox News fan club, when Jon Stewart repeatedly reports “atheists” are “dicks” and “atheists” this, and “atheists” that–as if all atheists agree and work as one collective with American Atheists as leaders–I must also consider how much responsibility a group claiming the name American Atheists should have for promoting an amiable image of atheism (rather than, say, an aggressive and attention-seeking image). One has to wonder about this even more, and about the group’s objectives, when the president of American Atheists takes Stewart’s somewhat chilling and ignorant remarks and barely says more than, “Wow! Our page got a lot of traffic after the Daily Show last night! Even though he’s wrong about us, we’re doing it right!” (not an exact quote).

So is this a win-win situation, a win-lose, or a lose-lose? Will we know until it plays out in court? Until years down the road? Is it really a hill worth dying on while we still, as some Christians so gleefully pointed out, have God on our failing currency, our pledge, and as our national motto?

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K. Mason

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08 2011