Atlantic columnist Wendy Kaminer discusses American Atheists’ suit to prevent the “World Trade Center cross,” an original cross-beam from one of the two towers that was recently moved from a lower Manhattan church to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The move, American Atheists charge, identifies the United States with Christianity and excludes nonbelievers from the ranks of the aggrieved.
What’s the harm of the cross, according to [American Atheists]? It’s presence in the 9/11 memorial causes plaintiffs to suffer from “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 and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 non-Christian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.”
“Get over it,” you can easily imagine any number of federal judges responding. “(H)urt feelings differ from legal injury,” the 7th circuit Court of Appeals recently declared, rejecting a challenge to the President’s declaration of National Prayer Day. Federal courts are increasingly unsympathetic to claims of emotional harm caused by government religiosity, denying standing to aggrieved plaintiffs characterized and trivialized as “offended observers” in establishment clause cases; (I discussed this trend here.) So the injury claims advanced by American Atheists are puzzling. Perhaps, by alleging stress related somatic injuries, the plaintiffs hope to demonstrate that they are not merely offended. Good luck with that: exaggerating the effects of the alleged offense only makes it easier to deride. Or perhaps plaintiffs are too enveloped by their pain to understand the folly of relying on it, or too immersed in the therapeutic culture to question whether their allegations of psychic harm are of great, constitutional import.
But government displays of sectarian religious symbols do raise important constitutional issues, not because of the risible personal harms alleged by American Atheists but because of the harms they inflict on the public sphere. When the government endorses or adopts the symbol of a majority religion it implicitly but effectively diminishes tolerance and threatens liberty for religious and irreligious minorities. It conveys a theocratic bias. When the government displays a Christian cross in a museum memorializing an epochal attack by violent Islamist extremists, the bias resonates with particular force, buttressing an extremist view of America as a Christian country, whose motto should not be E pluribus unum, or even “under God,” but “what would Jesus do.”
Read Kaminer’s article here.