TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Christians and nonbelievers alike are calling a monument erected recently outside a north Florida counthouse a victory.
The New Jersey-based American Atheists say their bench, etched with quotations from Founding Fathers, the nation’s most best-known atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and biblical punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, is believed to be the first permanent atheist monument on government grounds in the country.
Many Christians, including an attorney representing Bradford County, believe that the bench, along with their neighboring Ten Commandments monument, will help them spread the word of God.
But the installation of the marble bench has raised questions about whether the North Florida county’s use of a “free-speech zone” has opened the door for other local governments to create similar venues for religious expression and whether, taxpayer-sponsored or not, the monuments belong on government soil.
“My advice to communities all over the country is, if you don’t want to go through this kind of battle, keep it for its public purpose. Let people play Frisbee on it. Let people walk through it. We’ve gotten to a point where this has become clutter,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
County officials in 2011 designated the space in front of the courthouse a “free-speech” zone, more commonly carved out on a temporary basis during Christmas and during large events such as national conventions, to pave the way for a Ten Commandments monument and attempt to avoid lawsuits over the statue.
It didn’t work. The American Atheists sued the county after the monument was erected. County officials then asked the Community Men’s Fellowship, which paid for the monument, to remove it. But the Christian men’s group refused and threatened to take the county to court.
A federal judge in March ordered the atheists, the Christians and the county into mediation. The result: unlikely allies, both seemingly satisfied and a possible landmark solution paving the way for other communities, especially in the South, to avert lengthy and expensive lawsuits over constitutional prohibitions against keeping religious dogma in the public realm.
Communities throughout Florida are grappling with similar First Amendment issues.
ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said that to be truly neutral, the statues must be clearly marked that they are not government-sponsored and preferably located somewhere other than in front of the courthouse
Ken Weaver, president of the Community Men’s Fellowship, said the tablets are an expression of the group’s faith, upon which the country was founded.
“As Christians, we understand our relationship to God as a matter of faith. ... It’s not our intention to force people to be Christians. That’s not even close to being true with our faith,” Weaver said. “Too many times today, Christians are put under the microscope and scrutiny of other groups, and as a result end up giving up our rights or having our rights removed from us.”
Gael Murphy, an atheist, sits on the bench during the unveiling of an atheist monument outside the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla.×
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