The American Atheists, a nonprofit atheist advocacy organization, has threatened to sue the town of Princeton if a proposal to erect a memorial featuring a steel beam with a carved cross salvaged from the World Trade Center comes to fruition.
Princeton Fire Department Deputy Chief Roy James said he conceived the idea to construct a 9/11 monument in Princeton three years ago after acquiring a piece of wreckage from the attacks. Workers clearing the wreckage at Ground Zero inscribed a cross into a steel beam as a way of commemorating the victims, he said.
James said he plans to build the memorial in front of the Battle Monument at the intersection of Nassau Street and Route 206. The project will require $100,000 in funding, which he said he is seeking from private donors. Because the desired land is state property, James said he will also require state authorization to build the monument.
However, the state has said that the memorial would conflict with the existing monument in honor of those who died in the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War, according to Mayor Liz Lempert. James said he is currently in the process of appealing that decision.
The atheist group has argued that if the memorial were to be built on public lands, it would violate the constitutional separation between church and state. The group has requested that the beam be placed in a public “free speech zone” that accommodates memorials from members of other religions and groups — including a plaque from the American Atheists.
“When you put a memorial to the dead with a religious symbol on public land, you are making a statement that those people died embraced in that faith, and that is the exercise and practice of religion by government,” counsel for the American Atheists Bruce Afran said.
In contrast, James explained that the beam has historical, rather than religious, significance and that the cross does not personally offend him as a Jewish person.
“It’s a part of history and a symbol of remembrance,” James said.
When told of James’ assertion, Afran said that the context in which the cross would be placed gives the impression that the government is endorsing a particular religious point of view. “If it’s a piece of history, it belongs in a museum, not as a memorial to the dead,” Afran said.
As precedent, Afran cited County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, a 1989 Pennsylvania case in which the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for a nativity scene to be placed in front of a county courthouse. Similarly, in Jersey City, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a single creche placed in front of City Hall violated the separation between church and state — but that a multifaceted holiday display of both secular and religious symbols was acceptable.
Afran said that his clients are opposed not necessarily to the religious symbol of the cross, but rather to the singular Christian point of view they said it implies.“We want the town to create a zone where any group, not just Christians, can offer its expression of mourning for those who died on 9/11,” Afran said.
Lempert, who received a letter threatening legal action over the memorial’s construction from the American Atheists, said that until the site for the memorial is approved by the state, the town council will make no decisions regarding the constitutionality of the monument.
Lempert added that James has found an artist who would incorporate the steel beam into the memorial but obscure the cross from public view. In the new design, the beam would be placed between two stone pillars so that the cross would be facing inwards.
If the memorial were to be erected on public land, Lempert said that she expects that design, or some similar variation, would be approved by the town council. She explained that it is too early for any conclusive decisions to be made about the project’s constitutionality.
Nevertheless, Afran said that in these types of disputes, the specter of judicial recourse remains important.
“It’s necessary to do these things because once government begins to practice religious viewpoints, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “You know, it’s a short road from posting a cross to having a prayer before the municipal council meetings each week.”
Until a design and site for the memorial are approved, Afran said the American Atheists do not plan to further their plans for legal action.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated Roy James' title. He is the Deputy Chief of the Princeton Fire Department. The 'Prince' regrets the error.