A Public Monument to Atheism—In Florida

On June 29, 2013, in heavily Christian Northern Florida, American Atheists will unveil the first public monument to atheism.

A bench engraved with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Benjamin Franklin, and other atheists and freethinkers will be placed alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments on display in front of the Bradford County Courthouse.

How did this come about? As reported by news4jax.com: American Atheists had sued to have the aforementioned Ten Commandments monument taken down, and in an effort to mediate, the county asked the monument’s sponsoring group, the Community Men’s Fellowship, to remove it—but the group refused.

Rather than incur the expense involved in dismantling this 5-foot, 6-ton stone slab, Bradford County, Florida decided to establish a “Free Speech Forum” outside its courthouse, allowing for private groups like American Atheists to place monuments at their own expense.

When asked to comment on the establishment of the first atheist memorial on public property, Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, expressed concern that establishing an atheist monument alongside a religious one might give the public impression that atheism is another religion.

“By demanding our own monument alongside the unconstitutional religious monument, we implicitly cede the religious monument’s right to be there. ‘Tear it down’ sends  a far less mixed message than ‘We want one too.’”

American Atheist President David Silverman respectfully disagrees. In an email exchange, he noted,

“We do not have the right to demand religious monuments be removed. We only have the right to demand government neutrality. This can be achieved with no monuments or with everyone’s, because equality is an all-or-nothing concept. Our only choice is to take them up on their offer of equality.”

On the Americans United website, Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst, reflects on how this move toward pluralism may end up backfiring on those who wish to establish their version of a Christian America in the public square. 

Fundamentalists may think they’ve found a clever way to bring the Commandments in through the back door 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.

bgthedoor@aol.com'

Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Washington Post's On Faith section, The Guardian, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Killing the Buddha, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues (2013), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, 2006).