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'Clergy Ban' At 9/11 Memorial Ceremony Inspires Complaints

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911 MEMORIAL
A "clergy ban" on the Sept. 11 memorial dedication has raised complaints from some conservative Christian leaders. | Getty

UPDATE 9/7/11:Prominent liberal Christians are joining the chorus of protest over the lack of clergy participating in the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony on Sunday. While protest over the "clergy ban" was mostly limited to conservative religious voices last week, a group of self-described progressive evangelicals will hold a press conference on Friday near ground zero to voice their concern that "religion should not be excluded from 9/11 remembrances," according to a press release.

The group is led by the Rev. Jim Wallis, President and CEO of Sojourners, a Washington D.C.-based magazine and Christian organization, who will speak at the conference. Other scheduled speakers include the Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and Secretary General, World Evangelical Alliance; David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University; and the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman and the Senior Pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Greater Allen Cathedral in New York City. Friday's event will also include video statements from several unnamed international evangelical leaders.

"Global Evangelical leaders are calling for peace and unity and believe that while religion has historically been the cause of conflict, it can also serve as a solution," says the event's press release. It later continues: "The Evangelical leaders will give examples of Christians and Muslims living together peacefully and call for Christians to be good neighbors to the Muslim community."

When the Sept. 11 memorial is dedicated with a solemn ceremony of remembrance at ground zero this year, the names of the 2,983 deceased will be read by victims' families interspersed with remarks from city officials and politicians, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Barack Obama. But some Christian religious leaders complain that other important voices will not be heard.

A growing group of mostly conservative Christian leaders say organizers have shut out clergy and formal prayers from this year's annual 9/11 observance, which has taken on additional significance as the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches and the long-awaited memorial opens.

"It's unbelievable," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who has been sending email blasts to constituents about the the lack of clergy. "We live in a country where the overwhelming majority of people identify as Christian or have a religion, and clergy were some of the first people to respond on 9/11 to minister to victims. Why aren't they welcome today?"

Clergy have never been an official part of the 10 remembrance ceremonies at ground zero, which include one six months after the attacks and one on each 9/11 anniversary since. Instead, the events have featured moments of silence during which audiences may reflect and pray. Six such moments are planned this year -- two to recall when each of the twin towers was struck, two to recall when each tower fell, one to mark Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, and one to remember the attack on the Pentagon. But while there has been little controversy over the lack of formal religion at previous ceremonies, this year's event has generated petitions and responses from religious figures across the country.

In addition to Land, influential conservative Christian groups, including the American Family Association, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Family Research Council, have called on Bloomberg to change course, as has the televangelist Rev. Pat Robertson.

"I'm stunned. This event affected the whole psyche and soul of the country, and you are going to have no prayer? What's a memorial service if you are going to leave God out of it completely? It seems kind of hollow," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, which has sent "action alerts" to its 2.3 million subscribers urging them to write to Bloomberg to protest the ceremony lineup.

The Family Research Council, led by Tony Perkins, has also been sending notices to its base. Since launching a petition last week that says the clergy exclusion is "offensive to the families of victims" and "strangely overlooks the role that faith played in bringing healing to countless lives," the group has gathered more than 53,000 signatures.

Despite objections, Bloomberg's office has said it won't change the 9/11 plans.

"The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature. It has been widely supported for the past 10 years and rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died. This year's six moments of silence allow every individual a time for personal and religious introspection," Evelyn Erskine, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an email.

Erskine added that while clergy have never been a formal part of the event, they have attended in previous years, including some who are relatives of 9/11 victims. Those clergy have been allowed to read names of victims like any other family member.

In one of his recent weekly radio shows, Bloomberg warned that the event "cannot be political" and said it would offer a "poem or quote or something that each one of the readers will read" with "no speeches whatsoever."

“There’s an awful lot of people that would like to participate, but you just can’t do that once you open it up. So the argument here is, it’s elected officials and those who were there at the time and had some influence," the mayor said on the show.

Among those calling for formal religious representation, there are differing views on which clergy should be invited. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said there should be a "Catholic priest, Protestant minister, rabbi and imam." Wildmon said that in a country where "the Christian religion is dominant in terms of numbers, a Catholic or Protestant would be appropriate." In a blog post, Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, wrote that all religious representatives should take part as long as there is "an invocation on behalf of nonreligious people."

Not all religious leaders are objecting to the ceremony's lineup.

"Many people would understandably prefer to see a presence of clergy, but priority must be given to families of victims -- that is the overriding concern," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. "If you do include clergy, then the question becomes, 'Which faiths should be represented, which are not represented, how does one include everyone?'"

Potasnik said that the controversy "should not overshadow all the progress and work that has been done by and among different faiths" since 9/11 and noted that other commemorative events will have clergy and prayer. These include an event organized by the New York Police Department on Sept. 8 at Lincoln Center, which will include Rabbi Alvin Kass, the chief of chaplains for the NYPD; Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop emeritus of New York; and Bloomberg. Representatives of the Archdiocese of New York are participating in several 9/11-related events, and the Interfaith Center of New York is also hosting many 9/11-related gatherings.