Catholics Mount Campaign to Light Up Empire State Building for Mother Teresa

A Catholic group is rallying its troops after it says New York's Empire State Building "stiffed" Mother Teresa, denying a request to light up the landmark in blue and white lights, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's birth.

"To stiff Mother Teresa while giving this honor to every other Tom, Dick and Harry is not going to sit well with Catholics," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, which initiated the request for the commemorative lighting. The upper floors of the Empire State, New York's tallest building, are often lit in festive colors for special occasions.

Three months after the Catholic League, which is considered a conservative group, submitted its application, its leaders say they were stunned to receive a rejection. No explanation was given.

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Since then, Donohue, a well-known and often polarizing figure involved in Catholic American politics for nearly two decades, has mounted an ever-louder campaign to convince the building's owners to reverse their decision.

The league has now gathered 40,000 signatures, enlisted the support of several New York City Council members -- including the council's speaker -- and has vowed to gather thousands of Catholics to demonstrate on the street outside the Empire State Building on Aug. 26, Mother Teresa's birthday, and the date of the hoped-for lighting commemoration.

Malkin Holdings, the building's owner, was silent on the matter until Wednesday, releasing a statement just before two City Council members held a press conference on the steps of City Hall. They announced a council resolution asking Malkin to reverse course.

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The terse, written statement from Anthony Malkin, CEO and president, said the Empire State Building celebrates Easter, Eid al Fitr, Hanukkah, and Christmas, with themed lighting, and, "As a privately owned building, ESB has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations."

The Catholic League and its allies called the long-awaited statement less than illuminating. "Malkin is either misinformed or he is lying," said Donohue, who said that John Cardinal O'Connor's death was recognized with red and white lighting in 2005. The death of Pope John Paul II was marked with a dimming of the lights overnight.

The company now known as Malkin Holdings took over the Empire State Building in 2006, but some iteration of the company has held ownership in the building since 1961, when Anthony Malkin's grandfather purchased it with Harry Helmsley.

The company does not post information on its website about how it chooses from among the voluminous applications it receives each year. Several calls to a company spokesman were not returned.

In 2009, Anthony Malkin told the New York Times in 2009, "We try to use the lighting to celebrate everybody who thinks highly of the building. We do important Western holidays, we have fun with the Mets versus the Yankees or the Jets versus the Giants."

More unexpectedly, in 2008, the tower lit up in pink, purple and white on the occasion of Mariah Carey's new album. It has also been lit in conjunction with AIDS, breast cancer, and other health-awareness events. In May, the tower was lit for the Salute to Israel parade. It was once colored tie-dye in honor of a Grateful Dead exhibition, and later this month, it will light up lavender and white for Gay Pride Week.

Perhaps most galling to the Bill Donohue and the Catholic League was last year, when the tower was lit in red to recognize the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, "Even though 77 million innocent men, women and children were murdered under Mao Zedong,'' said Donohue.

While the selection process seems cloaked in secrecy, one example of an application denied became public last year, when an Iranian activist group applied to have the top of the building bathed in green light to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was visiting the United Nations at the time.

That group was given no explanation for the denial, according to a Wall Street Journal article, which also said that Malkin tries to stay out of political disputes.

The Iranian activists got their green lights anyway, thanks to some fortuitous timing: the Iranian president's visit coincided with the "Emerald Gala," in honor of the 70th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz.

The controversy over commemorating Mother Teresa has many scratching their heads.

"This is not a religious request,'' said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., one of the authors of today's resolution. "Mother Teresa is possibly the greatest humanitarian the world has ever seen."

Privately, some close to the controversy are saying that Anthony Malkin has a personal beef with Donohue. But Donohue says he had never heard of Malkin prior to the rejection and he surmises that it may have more to do with anti-Catholic sentiment.

"It smacks of bigotry,'' he said.

"Given the fact that Mr. Malkin is identified with the pro-choice community, it's not a great leap of faith to conclude that it's his pro-abortion passion that has something to with his decision to stiff Mother Teresa. We've seen this before. It doesn't take a rocket science to connect the dots"

The Malkin Fund gave more than $4 million to nearly 400 charitable organizations in 2008, the latest year for which tax filings are publically available. The donations included small sums to reproductive rights groups.

Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun of Albanian origin, has been recognized worldwide for her humanitarian work on behalf of the poor, the homeless, people with HIV and AIDS, leprosy, orphans and others in need. But she was also controversial for her work opposing abortion and contraception.

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