Excluding Clergy from NYC’s 9/11 Commemoration

Next week, New York City will hold its annual commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. As in past years, families of victims and responders will attend, along with local and national politicians. There will be moments of silence and readings of a “spiritual and personal” nature.  But clergy will not participate. The city maintains that this is a quasi-private event for families of victims and responders, not outsiders (except those politicians, of course); that the city cannot invite everyone who wishes to attend; and that clergy have not participated in past years’ ceremonies.

One should respect the families’ wishes, and it’s true that families’ groups, like Families of September 11, apparently do not object to excluding clergy. But this is a public event, the city’s official commemoration. And some people suspect that the real reason New York has excluded clergy is to avoid “divisiveness,” particularly the divisiveness that would ensue if the city invited Muslim clergy to participate.

There are two problems with this. First, notwithstanding the controversy over the “Ground Zero” mosque, it is not at all clear that many New Yorkers would object to the participation of Muslim clergy in a 9/11 commemoration. Muslims worked in the Twin Towers and were passengers on the airplanes too; New Yorkers understand this. Second, and more fundamentally, excluding clergy is not how Americans traditionally promote religious peace. Traditionally, Americans respond to religious diversity, not by excluding clergy from public events, but by including clergy from a wide variety of religions. Here, for example, is Benjamin Rush’s description of Philadelphia’s celebration of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788:

The Clergy [17 in all] formed a very agreeable part of the Procession…. Pains were taken to connect ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together …. The Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of the two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived of that section of the new constitution which opens all its power and offices alike not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.

If New York’s goal was to promote religious tolerance and understanding, it should have followed this example. – MLM

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