This weekend will be filled with somber memorial services and poignant tributes as the nation commemorates the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The annual memorial service in New York City will have a decidedly non-religious tone, a move that has drawn the ire of many faith leaders. Even former Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized the exclusion of clergy-led prayer at the service.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration is defending the decision to exclude formal participation by religious leaders at Ground Zero this Sunday, arguing that there are simply too many important faith traditions to provide an adequate representation of each in the service. As former New York City Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington notes, however, the city held a very successful interfaith “Prayer for America” event in Yankee Stadium just a few days after September 11 that acknowledged the important role faith plays in providing solace and hope to victims’ families.
Critics of the decision point out the constitutionality of allowing prayer at a public memorial and suggest that exclusion of it disregards the place of religion in American history and tradition. Some religious leaders also argue that excluding religious elements from the service ignores the profound role the faith community played in the aftermath of September 11, providing not only spiritual and emotional comfort to first responders and victims’ families, but also physical assistance in relief and rescue efforts.
Mayor Bloomberg’s decision not to include religious elements in the memorial service is a reversal from his effective defense of the World Trade Center cross, which was included in a permanent display at the city’s 9/11 Museum and Memorial a few weeks ago. In that instance, Mayor Bloomberg noted that since the religious symbol “clearly influenced people” and “gave them strength,” it should be included in the nation’s remembrance of September 11.
Prayer and religious observance hold a prominent place in American history and culture. As the nation commemorates the tragedy of September 11, we should remember—not exclude or dismiss—the important role religious faith played in providing comfort and hope that day and the role it continues to play in helping maintain a healthy civil society. Integral to the post–9/11 task of keeping the United States a safe, free, and prosperous society is acknowledging the importance of religion in society and the protection of religious liberty to uphold many other freedoms unique to America.