'Grossly offensive:' Atheist group threatens lawsuit over Jewish fireman’s planned 9/11 memorial featuring Christian cross

A group of atheists are fighting a planned 9/11 memorial near Princeton University over its inclusion of a salvaged World Trade Center beam that features a small cross cut into it by firemen in the days following the attack.

The beam was the only one made available to the memorial, a student publication, The Daily Princetonian, reported Tuesday, and it took on the cross-shaped hole when workers cut-out the symbol to place in the stretcher of a fallen comrade.

Jewish Fire Chief James is facing opposition over the 9/11 memorial he wants build with this beam. Photo Credit: Andrew Miller/For The Times of Trenton

Princeton Fire Department Chief Roy James, who conceived of the memorial three-years ago, argued, that the beam was the only one available and that the cross was more of a historic artifact than a religious icon.

“We didn't take this piece of steel and carve out the cross ourselves,” James told a local ABC affiliate last month. “We didn't ask for it to be there. This is the way this steel came to us.”

“I don’t look at it as a religious issue,” he added. “I am Jewish. I look at it as a piece of history and really a form of... art.”

But American Atheists President Dave Silverman said his group plans to sue if James does not obscure the cross or if the memorial is not placed in a special “free-speech zone” alongside a plaque from his own organization.

“Placing the religious symbols on public land and excluding others is clearly illegal and unconstitutional,” Silverman told the local CBS affiliate. “If they put it there they are breaking the law.”

“And yes,” he added. “American Atheists will take all legal actions including a lawsuit to stop it from happening.”

A conservative news magazine, The New American, also obtained a letter from American Atheist attorney Bruce Afran to Princeton’s Mayor Liz Lempert, suggesting many would find the cross to be “alienating” and “grossly offensive.”

“Although... the intention to commemorate those who died at the World Trade Center is admirable and appropriate for a community, the use of such a singular religious image will be grossly offensive and alienating to many people,” he reportedly wrote.

According the The Princetonian, the American Atheists have suggested that the salvaged metal be featured in a nearby “free speech zone” specially designed for different forms of religious, or non-religious expression.

But the fire chief, said he see the cross, as a part of the history of 9/11 rather than a religious symbol.

“I believe it (the cross) is part of history,” he said, according to The Times of Trenton. “By hiding it or doing anything else with it — you’re hiding or taking away history from people.”

Caroline Bazinet, a senior at Princeton University, told Campus Reform on Wednesday, she believes that excluding or obscuring the cross could result in the same sort of discrimination the American Atheists say they are trying to prevent.

“It seems like atheists are always calling religion discriminatory and partisan... but full opposition to religion and the religious is discrimination as well,” she said.  

"You could say this Atheist group is taking advantage of whatever opportunities comes its way," added Bazinet.  "They are outraged so often, it seems hard to believe it’s genuine. It seems more like bullying.”

According to several reports, workers cut different symbols including Stars of David and Christian crosses from beams of the fallen buildings. It was by chance that Princeton’s Jewish Fire Chief received a beam with a Christian cross.

That beam is currently being stored in the Princeton Fire Department Station.

Neither the Princeton Fire Department, Princeton’s mayor, or the American Atheists responded to Campus Reform’s request for comment in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @JosiahRyan