A cross-shaped steel beam pulled from the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center in New York days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks can be displayed in the national memorial museum at the site, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday.
An atheist group in 2011 sued the museum and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey seeking to block the display as unconstitutional, arguing that the cross was a religious symbol that had no place in a government-sponsored institution.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts dismissed the lawsuit, and a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her ruling in a unanimous decision on Monday.
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"As a matter of law, the record compels the conclusion that appellees' actual purpose in displaying The Cross at Ground Zero has always been secular: to recount the history of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath," Circuit Judge Reena Raggi wrote for the court.
Rescue workers unearthed the crossed set of girders two days after the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when al Qaeda members deliberately flew two hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center's twin towers.
The cross quickly became a symbol to hundreds of people, some of whom attended religious services held in front of it. It now stands in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened to the public in May.
A lawyer for the nonprofit group American Atheists, which filed the lawsuit, did not immediately return a call for comment. The group had argued on appeal for a plaque next to the cross commemorating the atheists who died in the attacks.
Mark Alcott, a lawyer for the museum, said his client was pleased the court had found the "actions of the museum's curators in depicting the historical events surrounding 9/11 ... to be secular in purpose and intent."
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