In the interview embedded below, American Atheists public relations director Dave Muscato attempted to explain to right-leaning radio host Steve Malzberg why the secularist group is fighting the placement of a Christian cross at a Princeton, NJ memorial site dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The memorial centers around a steel beam from the wreckage of the World Trade Center with a Christian cross cut out of it. As workers excavated the wreckage of the collapsed towers, they would stop to cut cross-shaped pieces of metal to give to the families of victims. Princeton city officials didn't realize their piece of the twin towers would have a cross in it, but when it arrived, they chose to make it the centerpiece of the display.
American Atheists challenged the design of the memorial on the grounds that it is being constructed with public tax money on public land. Endorsement of Christianity by the Princeton city government, said Muscato, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"We have an issue with that," Muscato told Raw Story in an interview. "It's unconstitutional on the grounds that you can't display a religious symbol by itself on public land using public funds."
American Atheists contacted the Princeton city government, including Fire Chief Roy James, who conceived and designed the monument. The letter to the mayor and city council called the Christian monument "offensive to the non-Christian people who died on that day" in 2001 and announced that American Atheists will sue the city government if the monument goes forward as currently planned.
The angry response was virtually immediate.
"We got a death threat," Muscato said cheerfully, "and about 50 pieces of hate mail the day that the story broke. But the fact is that we would be saying exactly the same thing, regardless of whether this was a Star of David or a crescent symbol of Islam. We would be doing exactly the same thing if this was not a 9/11 memorial. The issue is that it's unconstitutional. It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that it's from 9/11."
The group offered alternatives for the memorial committee, none of which have thus far been amenable to the city of Princeton.
"One is to hide the cross," said Muscato. "They're planning to put the beam up between these to limestone pillars. One thing that they could do would be to turn the beam sideways so that the cross is hidden and against one of the limestone pillars. They don't want to do that, and that's totally understandable."
However, when American Atheists asked if the ground dedicated to the memorial could be made into free speech forum that would include a secular plaque dedicated to non-theists who died in the attacks, as well as symbols of other belief systems, the memorial committee refused that, too. Another alternative would be to relocate the installation to a non-public setting like the grounds of a church and fund the memorial privately.
The planned unveiling of the monument, scheduled to take place on the 12th anniversary of the attacks on Tuesday, has been indefinitely postponed.
In his interview with Malzberg, Muscato was berated by the talk show host for American Atheists' president David Silverman calling the cross "grossly offensive."
"Why would it be 'grossly offensive' to have a cross on a 9/11 memorial?" Malzberg demanded. "Why would that be offensive to you, I want to know this."
"It's grossly offensive to me also," Muscato replied, "and the reason is because it purports to represent everybody who died, as though a Christian symbol can have that effect of representing everybody. That's not appropriate. Not everybody who died that day was Christian. If I had died, I would certainly not want a Christian representing a memorial for me."
"It's not your grave, sir!" said Malzberg. "It's not your grave!"
"Why is it your business to worry about whether or not somebody who perished," Malzberg began, then changed course. "This isn't about representing one person. This isn't specific to anything! It's a token, it's a memorial, one of many that are throughout the nation!"
"We stick to the Constitution," said Muscato.
"Oh, no, now you're back to the Constitution!" yelled Malzberg.
"I don't want my government putting up symbols of religion on government land," Muscato said. "It's not appropriate. It's why we have the First Amendment."
Watch the video, embedded below via YouTube: