The first U.S. public monument to Atheism is set to be unveiled outside a Florida courthouse later this month. It’s a granite bench engraved with secularist quotes. And weirdly, it owes its existence to the Ten Commandments.
Here’s how it happened. In October 2011, Bradford County, Florida established a “Free Speech Forum” outside its courthouse, allowing private groups to place monuments at their own expense. Last May, the Community Men’s Fellowship, a local Christian group, took advantage of that arrangement, placing a 5-foot, 6-ton stone slab engraved with the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
But that violated separation of church and state principles—or so alleged advocacy group American Atheists, which took Bradford County to court. Faced with a costly legal battle, the county asked the Community Men’s Fellowship to remove their monument. They refused.
So the case ended in a compromise: the Ten Commandments slab would stay, but American Atheists would be allowed to put up their own monument, as well. Hence, the 1,500 lb granite bench, which will be engraved with secularist quotes from figures like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
“We have maintained from the beginning that the Ten Commandments doesn’t belong on government property,” said American Atheists President David Silverman 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 bench will also feature quotes from the Bible listing punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, like execution—a move that’s designed to “make it clear that the Ten Commandments are not the ‘great moral code’ they’re often portrayed to be,” as American Atheists Public Relations Director Dave Muscato has said.
The Community Men’s Fellowship’s Ken Weaver told the Christian Post that while they don’t agree with American Atheists’ stance on religion, they do believe in their right to freely express their beliefs. ”God worked this out,” said the group in a Facebook statement.
This kerfuffle is just the latest in a growing number of conflicts about public displays of religion in the U.S., as the Huffington Post notes. In February, for example, a district judge dismissed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, ruling that another Ten Commandments display in front of a Florida courthouse could remain. Similar quarrels have erupted over Ten Commandments displays in public schools in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, in a new Gallup poll, three quarters of Americans say that religion is losing influence on life in the U.S.—the most negative evaluation of the impact of religion in America since 1970.