by Father Brian Jordan, O.F.M.
After conducting the 10 a.m. Ash Wednesday service in the chapel of St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, I asked those attending to please pray for me since I would be attending a federal appeals court hearing the next day in Foley Square.
I was the Franciscan priest who blessed the Ground Zero Cross on Oct. 4, 2001. In July , 2011, a host of institutions, elected officials and I were sued by an atheist organization for supporting that the Ground Zero Cross be inserted into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Although I have since been removed from the frivolous lawsuit, the atheists continued their action against the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
In the first round of litigation, Judge Deborah Batts ruled in favor of the museum on Good Friday, 2013. The museum could keep the Ground Zero Cross for public display as part of the history of 9/11. Immediately afterward, the same atheist organization filed an appeal. The oral arguments were set for March 6, 2014, one day after Ash Wednesday. I noticed the symbolism between Holy Week 2013 and Lent 2014 right away.
After my Ash Wednesday service, Professor Susan Saladino, head of the Department of Nursing at St. Francis College, raced up to me and said, “You are not going there alone! I am going to get nurses from a nearby hospital, nursing students and myself to join you tomorrow. Where is this court house?” she demanded.
I was truly moved by this offer since my own pro-bono attorney, Matthew Dowd of Wiley Rein LLP, could not attend. I gave her directions and the time of the appeals hearing at the Thurgood Marshal Court House in downtown Manhattan. Although I was quite gratified by Professor Saladino’s offer, I figured it would be impossible for her to gather many people in less than 24 hours.
The next morning, after an early Mass in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, I took the subway to downtown Manhattan and walked up the steps toward Foley Square. The first sight I saw was a row of TV cameras interviewing a few members of the small atheist organization who filed the appeal. (Again, they are a small group who do not represent the viewpoints of all atheists in America.) About 12 atheists were there.
Finally after two-and-a-half years, I was seeing face-to-face the very people who sued me on my birthday on July 25, 2011. I could have been angry but I pitied them. They looked haggard and lost. I thought, “These people are responsible for all this unnecessary pain and sorrow? God forgive them.”
Then I entered the court house by myself awaiting the hearing in court room No. 1703 at 9:28 a.m. Since I never heard back from Professor Saladino, I assumed she and her students would not be present. Well, ye of little faith! Was I wrong! Exactly two minutes later, Professor Saladino and 15 students sat next to me, behind me and in front of me for this pivotal case involving the Cross at Ground Zero.
Never Felt Alone
The nurses and nursing students were young, energetic and caring. They were genuinely interested in this case. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief. Their presence, prayers and support were extremely touching. God has been with me during these 12-plus years of caring for the Cross. I have never felt alone fighting for the Cross and I certainly was not alone at this crucially important appeals hearing.
The procedure for oral arguments in federal appeal court begins with the lawyer representing the appellants, in this case, the American Atheists Association. Then the lawyer representing the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is provided equal time with his argument of why the Cross at Ground Zero should remain in the museum. Finally, the lawyer for the American Atheists Association has a three-minute rebuttal.
Although I am not a lawyer, I was surprised how unorganized the attorney for the American Atheists Association was. He strayed from the main issues and seldom gave direct answers to the intelligent and penetrating questions by the three-judge panel. The lawyer for the museum was clear and succinct. He convincingly stated that religion was part of the historical experience of 9/11. (This was one of the same points I made in my amicus brief to the court.) The Cross is an artifact in the museum.
He then brilliantly asserted, “The Museum is neither a proponent nor opponent of religion. It is neutral.”
However, he contended that the Ground Zero Cross is an artifact that was discovered on site as a direct result of 9/11. The atheists’ request to insert a plaque about atheists should not be included in the museum because it is not a historical artifact discovered at the 9/11 site.
After the oral arguments, one of the judges said that they will deliberate over these arguments and legal briefs and then issue a decision within a couple of months. While exiting for the elevators, I overheard some of the atheists’ sympathizers groan aloud, “I think we are going to lose a second time!”
When we left the federal court, I thanked Professor Saladino, the nurses and nursing students for their presence and support. I thanked them for healing my wounds. When Professor Saladino asked about what wounds, I told her not the physical wounds that nurses often tend to whether their patients believe in God or not, rather the spiritual wounds of bitterness and resentment that I was carrying since I was unfairly sued by a small group of extremist individuals who do not represent all well-intentioned atheists in our nation.
Here on the day after Ash Wednesday, I was healed by the insightful questions of the judges. I was healed by the reliable and consistent legal advice from my attorney, Matthew Dowd (not withstanding his education by the Jesuits at Regis H.S.).
Especially, I was healed by Dr. Saladino and the nurses from St. Francis College. As I reflect, the Cross at Ground Zero provided comfort and consolation to both family members of 9/11 victims and the recovery workers who served at Ground Zero for nine months or more. Without even knowing, these fine nurses provided me comfort and consolation with their presence and concern for my spiritual wounds that I have been carrying for two-and-a-half years.
I thought of the term coined by Joel Osteen, “Be better not bitter.” I was bitter for a long time about being sued. Any priest being sued in this country has grave, negative connotations in the public eye. However, this lawsuit against me is different. I am probably the only priest in the country to be proud to be sued for something he truly believes in – the Cross at Ground Zero.
I believe it is no coincidence that a district court federal judge issued her decision on Good Friday, 2013. It is also no coincidence that the appeals court heard oral arguments on the day after Ash Wednesday, 2014. What a wonderful Lent it is so far! I hope and pray that the Court of Appeals judges issue their decision by Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, June 8, 2014.
What a coincidence or perhaps a symbol of faith that would be! Praise be God!