Antagonists of religious belief will go to extraordinary lengths to drive out any mention of the spiritual from the public square. A few weeks ago, the streets of Brooklyn were witness to such extreme secularism. There a new commemorative street sign has created a stir among local and national atheist groups, who claim the sign’s reference to “heaven” is offensive and unconstitutional.
On September 11, 2001, seven firefighters from a Brooklyn firehouse rushed into the World Trade Center after the first tower was hit to help victims of the terrorist attacks, ultimately sacrificing their own lives to save others. Almost 10 years to the day after the seven men died, a street in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, near the men’s fire company, has been ceremonially named “Seven in Heaven Way.”
As the seven firefighters’ friends, widows, and fellow service members stood at Richards Street a few weeks ago to commemorate the fallen, a group of atheists were insisting that the sign offended their beliefs and violated the First Amendment. New York City Atheists’ president Kenneth Bronstein told reporters, “There should be no signage or displays of religious nature in the public domain,” adding that it was “insulting” to use the word heaven in the street sign. “We’ve concluded as atheists there is no heaven and there’s no hell,” Bronstein explained.
As common sense and U.S courts have pointed out, however, merely feeling insulted does not a constitutional argument make. For instance, this past spring, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard a case in which the Freedom from Religion Foundation claimed that the President’s annual proclamation of a National Day of Prayer constitutes a government endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, the group argued, the President’s calling citizens to reflection, thanksgiving, and remembrance is deeply offensive to non-believers. The Seventh Circuit held that the atheist organization did not have standing to sue partly because “hurt feelings differ from legal injury.”
As for the sign constituting a government endorsement of religion, applying the same scrutiny to other publicly named places would necessitate renaming streets, towns, and cities across the country, a multitude of which have religious connotations.
Secularists’ insistence on eradicating any allusion to religion or religious beliefs from the public sphere distorts the foundational American idea of freedom of—not from—religion. Atheists’ argument in the Brooklyn sign situation, like the National Day of Prayer case and Pledge of Allegiance case, misunderstands the First Amendment’s intent to allow robust religious freedom in the public sphere, not hermetically seal it within the walls of churches, mosques and synagogues. As Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall explains about the American model of religious freedom:
Far from privatizing religion, it assumes that religious believers and institutions will take active roles in society.… In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government.
Sadly, the situation in Brooklyn might not end at Richards Street. City leaders who approved the sign are unwilling to remove or change “Seven in Heaven Way,” but Bronstein says he will consider filing a lawsuit against the city on behalf of himself and other atheists who feel insulted.
Ironically, if the atheists take their case into federal court in Brooklyn, they will be filing suit at an address on Cadman Plaza. The Reverend Doctor Samuel Parkes Cadman, after whom the plaza is named, was a global figure and the first Congregational minister in the United States to air coast-to-coast radio sermons.
Securing a religiously sterile public square may be a much larger task than atheist groups foresee.