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Atheist group sues over proposed cross at 9/11 memorial

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Part of the Sept. 11 memorial (AP)

The group American Atheists and four New Yorkers are suing the states of New York and New Jersey for planning to place a cross--a piece of debris from the World Trade Center--at the 9-11 memorial for the attacks' victims.

The planned memorial--which will at long last be unveiled this September--has received millions in federal money. The Courthouse News Service says the cross--"a T-joint steel girder found in the rubble of the World Trade Center"--was just last week moved from a Catholic church to Ground Zero. The suit says the cross is an insult to the many 9/11 victims who were not Christian and a violation of the separation of church and state; it proposes either removing the cross or setting aside an equal amount of space at the memorial to honor the sacrifices on non-Christian or non-religious victims of the attack.

Two Jewish plaintiffs said they find the cross "offensive and repugnant to their beliefs." The brother of a first responder who died of lung problems after volunteering at Ground Zero for two weeks is also a plaintiff.

"As a survivor of the 9/11 attack and family member of one of the brave responders to the 9/11 attack, Mark Panzarino is appalled that the state has permitted a symbol of Christianity to represent a tragedy that affected all Americans. The Panzarinos unequivocally do not wish for a cross to represent Frank Joseph Panzarino's sacrifice unless it is a Lutheran Cross," he said in the complaint. (A Lutheran cross features a rose-shaped inlay that, in turn, showcases another crucifix; the plaintiffs evidently singled it out to make the point that any such choice of a Christian symbol excludes someone else's belief.)

Secular-minded advocacy has echoed the gist of the Panzarinos' complaint. "The WTC cross has become a Christian icon. It has been blessed by so-called holy men and presented as a reminder that their god, who couldn't be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross," American Atheists President David Silverman said in a statement. "It's a truly ridiculous assertion."

"We are happy to donate a suitable and respectful display and pay all associated costs, and we won't stand idly by while atheists and their families are discounted. We seek only fairness," Silverman wrote on his blog.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, said that it intends to file an amicus brief backing the placement of the cross at the memorial. "This lawsuit is deeply flawed and without merit. This is just the latest chapter of an anti-God strategy employed by atheist organizations across the country--a strategy offensive to millions of Americans, a strategy that we're confident ultimately will fail in court," chief counsel Jay Sekulow said.

Click image to see more photos. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Click image to see more photos. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

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