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Lights fight

Religion | New York's Empire State Building declines a request to honor Mother Teresa

NEW YORK-A refusal by management of New York's Empire State Building to commemorate the life of Mother Teresa by lighting the building in her honor has led to protests by Catholics. And it's not the first time the building's lighting policies have drawn ire.

Each night the iconic building lights up with colors to recognize cultural events, organizations, or holidays-everything from lavender and white for Gay Pride on June 25-27, to blue and white for the 25th anniversary of Crain's New York Business publication the day afterward. In February, the Catholic League submitted a request that the Empire State Building (ESB) light up blue and white in August to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mother Teresa's birth.

Although none of the building's staff initially indicated that there was a reason to summarily dismiss the application, management denied the request in May. "We got no explanation why it was denied," said Jeff Field, director of communications for the Catholic League. "They just simply declined it."

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After a blitz of negative attention-with thousands signing a Catholic League petition and the New York City Council introducing a resolution endorsing the Catholic League's request-the building's primary owner, Anthony Malkin, issued a statement Wednesday saying that although the building lights up for a few religious holidays, "as a privately owned building, ESB has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations."

But the Catholic League notes that as recently as April 2009, the ESB honored the Salesian Sisters, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. In 2000, the ESB lit up red and white to honor John Cardinal O'Connor, and extinguished its lights in 2005 to honor Pope John Paul II's death. It has also commemorated the 125th anniversary of the Salvation Army.

Over 30,000 people have signed the Catholic League's website petition and 10,000 have written in their support. New York City Council members are joining forces against the ESB, with City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. saying, "The only person who could forgive the Empire State Building for this boneheaded decision would be Mother Teresa." Brooklyn Borough President Marky Markowitz said in a statement that although Brooklyn's Borough Hall "may not be as tall as the Empire State Building," Brooklyn would light it up on August 26 to commemorate Mother Teresa.

Field mentions another controversial lighting decision last September, when the ESB lit up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (see "Glowing political," Sept. 30, 2009). The decision angered not just Chinese human rights activists but also Iranian protesters, since the ESB denied their own request that the building light up green to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

Field said the owners should treat groups equally: "Even though it's not publicly owned it's a national symbol. It's a public symbol." It's their decision, he added, but pointed out it was the wrong one.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn held a press conference Thursday calling on New Yorkers to light their own windows and homes in Mother Teresa's honor. She also called for a citywide day of service on August 26. On that day, the Catholic League plans to protest at the doors of the ESB.

Also Thursday, the ESB issued another statement saying the owners are "saddened by the hateful words and messages" and that "our policies and practices are subject to change in accord with ownership's preferences."

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