By the end of the month, the courthouse in Bradford County, Fla., will be home to a large granite bench covered with quotes from famous skeptics and atheists.
How did this happen? Is Bradford County some sort of hotbed of atheism?
Probably not. The north Florida county of 26,000 has a church roster that consists of the usual collection of Baptist, Pentecostal, Churches of Christ and other conservative Christian denominations found in the South. It’s known mainly for housing several state prisons.
The secularist monument came about because some officials in the county got the bright idea to establish a “free speech forum” at the courthouse in 2011. The notion was to get the Ten Commandments displayed in front of the courthouse. Local officials knew if they put the Decalogue up there on its own at government expense they might get sued, hence the forum.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long for a local Christian group called the Community Men’s Fellowship to haul a six-ton Commandments monument to the courthouse.
When American Atheists threatened to sue over the matter, county officials had little choice but to agree to accept an atheist monument as well.
“We have maintained from the beginning that the Ten Commandments doesn’t belong on government property,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said in a press release. “There is no secular purpose for the monument whatsoever, and it makes atheists feel like second-class citizens. But if keeping it there means we have the right to install our own monument, then installing our own is exactly what we’ll do.”
The atheist monument will be a granite bench that weighs about 1,500 pounds engraved with quotes by people like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists.
The Bradford County dust-up reminded me of an incident Americans United took to court in 2011 after officials in Johnson County, Tenn., approved a policy allowing “citizens and citizen groups” to erect permanent displays “relating to history and heritage of American law and government on the walls in the lobby of the Johnson County Courthouse.”
Again, the officials’ goal here was to find a way to display the Commandments at the courthouse. In short order, a group called the Ten Commandments Warriors donated a display including the Decalogue as well as several quotes promoting bogus “Christian nation” concepts.
Then the fun started. Ralph Stewart, a local resident, sought to erect a display listing the historical foundations of separation of church and state. He was denied. County officials dragged their feet and gave various phony reasons why they didn’t want to erect Johnson’s display. They were suddenly eager to talk after AU took Johnson’s case to court.
The case was settled out of court, and Stewart was permitted to display his posters. In addition, as part of the settlement, Johnson County officials agreed to modify their policy to make it clear that they would not turn down a display simply because they don’t like its content. Disclaimers were also added to make it clear that the displays are sponsored by private individuals and groups, not Johnson County.
Just to be clear: Americans United’s preference would be that courthouses and other government buildings be free of religious symbols and sectarian codes. American law is not based on the Ten Commandments. (When was the last time someone in your town got arrested for worshipping the wrong god or making a graven image?) Putting the Decalogue at the seat of government promotes bad theology and bad law. It’s especially offensive in courthouses, where judges are supposed to treat people on an equal basis no matter what they believe (or don’t believe) about religion or God.
Fundamentalists may think they’ve found a clever way to bring the Commandments in through the backdoor by invoking a “free speech zone.” They have to understand what that means. Free speech means free speech for everyone. Those courthouse plazas may get awfully crowded.
Rather than litter our courthouses with every conceivable religious and secular code, we’d do better to keep those signs and symbols where they belong – in private homes and houses of worship. Our courthouses should stay focused on their primary mission, which is entirely secular: dispensing justice for all.