While 9-11 remembrance ceremonies are being held today at locations throughout the area, one tribute to the tragic events of that day in 2001 remains on hold. Princeton Deputy Fire Chief Roy James, whose ongoing efforts to establish a permanent memorial at a site outside Monument Hall have been stalled by the image of a cross cut into the piece of World Trade Center wreckage that would be it’s centerpiece. He says the project is now “in a holding pattern.”
“Everyone is still on board,” Mr. James said this week. “We’re waiting for approval from the state. We decided it would be best to wait until next year to have a ceremony, when we hopefully will have approval to proceed.”
The project needs state approval because the site James has proposed for the memorial is on state property near the Princeton Battlefield Monument. The state denied his initial application. “But we have put in for a reversal,” Mr. James said. “We feel very confident that we will receive the approvals. We’re very optimistic.”
In March, 2012 Mr. James secured a 10-foot-long steel beam from the twin towers and arranged to have it transferred to Princeton on a flatbed truck, accompanied by a procession of first response vehicles and motorcycles. The beam already had a cross cut into one side, likely by rescuers working at the site of the World Trade Center collapse.
At a Princeton Council meeting two months ago, Mr. James presented a detailed plan for the site. While Council members were supportive of the idea, some had reservations because of the possible legal implications the cross could present. Then last month, the New-Jersey-based group American Atheists threatened to sue the town of Princeton if it allowed the steel remnant to be displayed on public land without allowing symbols of other religions and other groups to also be on view at the site. Attorney Bruce Afran, representing the group, sent a letter to Mayor Liz Lempert on August 23 stating the group’s intentions.
“While a steel girder certainly is an appropriate image to bring to mind the tragedy of that day,” Mr. Afran’s letter reads, “the image of the cross carved into the approximate center of the girder, as shown by published photographs, inevitably -imbues the image with religious content in a memorial to the dead of 9/11. Use of a religious symbol for such a purpose on public land is barred by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits public acts establishing religion.”
Mr. Afran’s letter goes on to say that since those who died on 9/11 were of many different religions, the use of a singular religious image would be alienating and offensive to many. American Atheists’ position is that the beam should not be situated on public land or enabled by public funds unless it is in a designated “free speech zone.”
“This would allow anyone who wants to memorialize those who died on 9/11, not just religious groups, to do so,” Mr. Afran said this week. “The free speech zone has to allow all kinds of groups, religious and non-religious. You can’t have anything dedicated only to a religious expression. It’s unconstitutional.”
Upon receiving Mr. Afran’s letter on behalf of American Atheists last month, Mayor Lempert responded immediately. “If it ends here, it ends here,” he said. “But if the town decides to authorize its land for this memorial, then it will have a court case [on it’s hands].” Should the state grant approval for the monument without a free speech zone, “then my clients would bring the action against the state,” he added. “The issue is really the same, whether for the state or the town. This is public land, and the government can’t put up religious monuments on public land, even if funded by private money.”
Meanwhile, Mr. James is hoping to get the project back on track. Plans call for a beam placed upright, with three to four limestone pillars on each side. One additional pillar would be built by local citizens. The memorial would tell the history of the events of 9/11. There would be nine benches, each one inscribed with the name of a person from Princeton who was killed in the attacks.
“We have the steel. We just don’t have the resting spot,” he said. “It’s kind of a wait and see game at this point.”