This summer, the city of Brooklyn renamed a neighborhood street “Seven in Heaven Way” to honor seven local firefighters who gave their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. A nice thought, right? Simple, symbolic, sincere. But sadly, the commemorative gesture has since generated controversy.
The New Jersey-based American Atheists, the same group that brought the country “God Less America” Fourth of July aerial banners, promptly objected to the street name.
“It’s improper for the city to endorse the view that heaven exists,” American Atheists president David Silverman said. “It links Christianity and heroism.”
Additional objections: Sept. 11 was an attack on “all of America,” so no memorial of it should “break” the Constitution — and, also, the street sign presumes to know what the seven firefighters themselves believed.
But, as The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall points out, the group’s objections reveal a misunderstanding of freedom of religion.
Godless secularism – or a “naked public square” denuded of all religious references and symbols, as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it – never was intended to be the character of our American republic. Religious freedom, the cornerstone of all freedom, is freedom for religion, not hostility toward it.
Yes, the Founders wisely separated political from religious authority in our federal government, but they didn’t intend to divorce religion from public life or politics. They based the American model of religious liberty on a favorable view of religious practice.
Far from privatizing or marginalizing religion, the Founders assumed religious believers and institutions would take active roles in society, engaging in the political process and helping to shape consensus on morally fraught questions. …
Most nations are dominated, demographically anyway, by adherents of particular faiths. But every denomination – and the atheist camp as well – is a small minority somewhere on the planet. This reality underscores why religious liberty, not the radical secularist or theocratic systems at either end of the spectrum, should be precious to everyone.
But on a more practical level, the objections reveal an acute sensitivity that seems unwarranted in this situation. A street name with the word “heaven” doesn’t automatically imply an endorsement of Christianity — many other religions include a paradisal idea of the afterlife, too. Nor does it even necessarily imply an endorsement of the belief that heaven is real. Are no streets named for mythical places or fictional characters? Additionally, more than 400 New York City streets have been named for 9-11 victims and heroes. Clearly, the sign was named with the simple motivation of recognizing seven men who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Perhaps that’s why one First Amendment lawyer described the situation this way: “The area of religion is so complex and nuanced that you could argue nearly anything … But a [legal] challenge in this case would be far-fetched.”