MANHATTAN (CN) - The National September 11 Memorial and Museum can continue to display the crucifix-shaped beams found in the rubble of the World Trade Center in its "Finding Meaning" exhibition, the 2nd Circuit ruled on Monday.
Two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, construction worker Frank Silecchia found the 17-foot steel beams shaped like a cross, and brought them to the attention of other workers. The artifact soon became a focal point at many religious services held at Ground Zero.
In September 2006, it was transferred to Saint Peter's Church in lower Manhattan and remained there for five years until the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey donated it to the World Trade Center Foundation for inclusion in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
American Atheists and three of members of the nonprofit challenged the donation on Aug. 26, 2011 as a state endorsement of religion that trivialized the work of non-Christian rescue workers.
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts tossed that challenge in March 2013.
The museum opened in May this year with the remnant being displayed in its "Finding Meaning at Ground Zero" exhibition.
The text accompanying this exhibit quotes New York City's former commissioner for emergency management Richard Sheirer calling it a "symbol of hope, faith and healing."
"It didn't matter what religion you were, what faith you believed in," Scheirer said. "It was life, it was survival, it was the future ... I would say that it represents the human spirit."
A unanimous panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that it can remain there because it does not violate the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause.
"No reasonable factfinder could conclude that appellees trivialize atheists' September 11 experience when both the memorial and the museum identify every person killed in the attacks of that day without regard to religious affiliation," U.S. Circuit Judge Reena Raggi wrote in a 42-page opinion. "Further, the museum's 'Finding Meaning' exhibition respectfully reports that people employed a variety of nonreligious, as well as religious, means to cope with the September 11 attacks.
"As for the challenged cross, at the same time that a textual panel reports the historical fact that people viewed it as a religious symbol, it also states the further historical fact that still more people, without regard to their religious affiliation, embraced the cross as a broader symbol of hope, life, and the human spirit."
Lawyer Edwin Kagin, who argued on behalf of advocacy group American Atheists, died earlier this year.
David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said he did not know whether the organization would be appealing the decision.
"Atheists died on 9/11, members of our organization suffered in lower Manhattan on that day, and our members helped with the rescue and recovery efforts - yet we are denied equal representation in the National Museum," he wrote in a statement. "There are no better examples of Christian privilege and prejudice in this country than this decision and the refusal of the museum commission to work with us to honor atheists who died and suffered on 9/11."
Matthew Dowd, a lawyer from the Washington-based firm Wiley Rein LLP, issued a statement hailing the decision.
"The Second Circuit's unanimous decision is a resounding victory for the 9/11 Museum, which was established to recount the complete and accurate history of 9/11 and the events at Ground Zero," said Dowd, who friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the priest holding masses at the artifact. "As the Second Circuit recognized, the Ground Zero Cross was an integral part of that history, and the court rejected the American Atheists' attempt to remove the Cross from that history."