Michael Gaynor
"Seven in Heaven Way" street sign supposedly offends atheist sensibilities by establishing religion
By Michael Gaynor
June 23, 2011

"What is an establishment of religion? It must have a creed, defining what a man must believe; it must have rights and ordinances, which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications, to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive, and penalties for the nonconformist. There never was an establishment of religion without all these."

"Seven in Heaven Way," was officially dedicated last weekend in Brooklyn outside the firehouse where seven firefighters who were killed on September 11, 2001 worked.

Now a group of New York City atheists is demanding that a street sign honoring seven firefighters killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks be taken down because it violates the separation of church and state and threatening to sue if it is not.

They charge that the presence of the word "Heaven" in the sign is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

This is what happens because in 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court erroneously ruled that the government must be neutral between religion and irreligion.

"There should be no signage or displays of religious nature in the public domain," said Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists."

It's really insulting to us," Bronstein continued, because "[w]e've concluded as atheists there is no heaven and there's no hell."

Bronstein: "...it's a totally religious statement. It's a question of separation of church and state."

How others might perceive his opposition to the street sign honoring fallen heroes might be perceived did not matter to Bronstein. "It's irrelevant who it's for," Bronstein said. "We think this is a very bad thing."

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, concurred and called on New York City to remove the sign because "[i]t implies that heaven actually exists."

Silverman explained:

"People died in 9/11, but they were all people who died, not just Christians. Heaven is a specifically Christian place. For the city to come up and say all those heroes are in heaven now, it's not appropriate."

"All memorials for fallen heroes should celebrate the diversity of our country and should be secular in nature. These heroes might have been Jews, they might have been atheists, I don't know, but either way it's wrong for the city to say they're in heaven. It's preachy."

City leaders said that no one had complained about the sign as it was going through a public approval process.

"It's unfortunate that they didn't raise this as an issue while it was undergoing its public review either at the community board level or when it came before the City Council on their public agenda," said Craig Hammerman, the district manager for Brooklyn Community Board 6.

It's unfortunate that they raise this "issue" at all!

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commented.

"There are cities that have religious connotations in their names, why not a street," Land said. "Do they want us to rename Los Angeles, Corpus Christi, and St. Joseph?"

Yes, the secular extremists do!

Land asked, "In a country where 85 percent of the people say they are Christian or claim to be Christian, should it be surprising that you name cities and streets with religious terminology?"

No, certainly not.

The First Amendment never was intended to ban such a street sign as an unconstitutional establishment of religion within the meaning of that phrase when the First Amendment was drafted and adopted.

Silverman claimed that the obnoxious atheists were simply being patriotic.

"If we're opposed to this sign, we're somehow opposed to honoring the heroes," Silverman said. "The attacks on 9/11 were an attack on America. They were an attack on our Constitution and breaking that Constitution to honor these firefighters is the wrong thing to do. The patriotic and right thing to do is to obey our own law and to realize that we are a diverse nation, a melting pot full of different views."

Silverman confuses diversity with perversity.

The "patriotic and right thing to do" is for the Supreme Court to put a stop to such secular extremist outrage by revisiting Everson v. Board of Education and modifying it to state that the government may support religion generally, but may not establish a national religion.

"Establishment" is not achieved with a street sign.

In the mid nineteenth century, Congress rejected a secular extremist challenge to the constitutionality of the military chaplaincy. After careful study, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report explaining the establishment clause:

"The clause speaks of 'an establishment of religion.' What is meant by that expression? It referred, without doubt, to the establishment which existed in the mother country, its meaning is to be ascertained by ascertaining what that establishment was. It was the connection with the state of a particular religious society, by its endowment, at public expense, in exclusion of, or in preference to, any other, by giving to its members exclusive political rights, and by compelling the attendance of those who rejected its communion upon its worship, or religious observances. These three particulars constituted that union of church and state of which our ancestors were so justly jealous, and against which they so wisely and carefully provided...."

The report further stated that the Founders were "utterly opposed to any constraint upon the rights of conscience" and therefore they opposed the establishment of a religion in the same manner that the church of England was established. But, the Founders "had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people....They did not intend to spread over all the public authorities and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle of 'atheistic apathy.' Not so had the battles of the revolution been fought, and the deliberations of the revolutionary Congress conducted."

A similar House Judiciary Committee report explained that "an establishment of religion" was a term of art with a specific meaning:

"What is an establishment of religion? It must have a creed, defining what a man must believe; it must have rights and ordinances, which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications, to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive, and penalties for the nonconformist. There never was an establishment of religion without all these."

Now some pretend that a street sign with the word "Heaven" in it establishs religion!

© Michael Gaynor


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)


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