Atheist monument unveiled in front of crowd in Starke
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.
STARKE — Walk past the Bradford County Courthouse here and you'll probably notice the Ten Commandments first.
Etched onto a large black monument shaped like twin tablets, the commandments are hard to miss.
But if you look to the side, you will notice a smaller, gray granite monument in the shape of a bench with an accompanying pillar engraved with quotes.
Those who erected the monument say it's the first public marker dedicated to atheism in the United States, and it was officially unveiled on Saturday in front of about 200 people who crowded the courthouse's courtyard.
The atheist monument includes quotes from Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair and others. One side of the pillar lists the biblical punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, which often call for execution.
American Atheists, a national advocacy group based in New Jersey, established the monument. It originally sued Bradford County in May 2012, soon after the Ten Commandments monument was erected in front of the courthouse, seeking the monument's removal.
The Community Men's Fellowship, a Starke-based group that sponsored the religious monument when it was erected, refused the county's request that it remove the display and filed its own lawsuit. During court-ordered mediation, the groups settled on an agreement: The Ten Commandments monument could stay, but American Atheists would establish their own monument in kind.
It may be the first public monument to atheism in the nation, but it is only the first of many, said American Atheists President David Silverman.
Silverman announced during the unveiling ceremony Saturday afternoon that the organization will erect up to 50 more monuments across the country in public places where religious structures like the Ten Commandments marker in Starke have been established.
An anonymous donor has pledged up to $500,000 for this effort, Silverman said in an interview after the ceremony.
Silverman was one of several people during Saturday's unveiling who spoke to a mostly supportive crowd that packed the outdoor courtyard in front of the courthouse.
Before the speeches began, people who traveled from Jacksonville, Orlando and other cities chatted beneath umbrellas and building overhangs in the light rain. A handful of protesters stood beside signs with sayings like, ‘‘If you don't like our Christian culture, go back home!" One of the protesters held a Confederate flag high.
Gael Murphy, a 64-year-old from Tampa, came to be part of what she said was a wonderful occasion. "To me this is a celebration," she said. "I'm so happy to be here."
While atheists would prefer not to have any religious markers in front of a government building like this one, Murphy said, this monument at least brings some balance to the courtyard, which has been designated a free speech forum by Bradford County.
"We're not trying to get religion out of the public sphere," she said. "Just out of the courthouse ..."
"If they're going to call it a free speech area, let's have some freedom," she said.
Murphy received a handout from someone in the crowd that offered one view of what a world without God entails. "Welcome to a world that rejects God ... Welcome to a world where there is no right and no wrong ... Welcome to hell," it read. Red blotches that looked like blood were printed on the flier.
"We want to have a world with just laws that are equally enforced and where people are compassionate," Murphy said. She felt the flier suggested atheists are "monstrous."
Michael Tubbs, of Jacksonville, was one of the Christian protesters who came to the unveiling. He said he and other protesters there were members of the Florida League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization. He sees the atheist monument as another attempt to diminish Florida's Christian heritage.
"It's a steady chipping away of our heritage, one piece at a time," he said.
The Ten Commandments monument, in his eyes, is suitable for the courthouse. "Our western Christian civilization is already based on the Ten Commandments," he said. "That is the most appropriate symbol for this courtyard that we could put here."
During the ceremony, several speakers talked about the significance of the monument and what it is like being an atheist in America. Across the street, some people held handwritten signs about Jesus and blared Christian music.
Jeanette Madea, of the Center for Inquiry Community of Fort Lauderdale, said the atheist monument is just a piece of granite with words carved on it.
"But what strikes me on this occasion is the power we ascribe to words," she said. "The fact that we have some people behind us trying to drown out our words is (a) testament to that: Fear of what we might say," she said.
EllenBeth Wachs, founder and co-president of Atheists & Humanists of Florida, said the monument shows that atheists will no longer be ignored in this public square.
"I think we can look around and see that these atheists made a lot of noise," she said, looking at the crowd in the courtyard. "They weren't ignored."
Silverman, of American Atheists, called the Ten Commandments "barbaric," pointing out that the Bible condones execution for working on the Sabbath Day, among other offenses. He said he considers the commandments an example of hate speech.
"The demand to worship one god of one religion under penalty of death is the essence of theocracy," he told the crowd.
Silverman urged Christians to actually read the Bible, even offering a copy of it signed by the day's speakers to anyone who promised to read it cover to cover. Ignorance of their own Bible is what keeps many Christians Christian, he said.
As he spoke to the crowd, people began to sit on the newly unveiled bench and take photographs. A boy sat down and smiled for the camera, followed by friends, couples and parents with their kids.
Once the speeches were over, Silverman sat on the bench. People plopped down next to him one by one to get a photograph with him and the monument.
At one point, Eric Hovind, with Creation Today, jumped up onto the atheist monument and began to talk about Christianity, making a comment about tolerance.
Silverman, in response to Hovind standing on the secular monument, jumped onto the bottom ledge of the Ten Commandments marker.
Father Les Singleton, a pastor from Micanopy, said the atheists have a civic right to be here and establish their monument, but he felt they made a caricature of Christianity during their speeches.
Silverman said he was disappointed in the disruptions by Christian protesters. He has been a protester many times, he said, and the point is never to disrupt but to peacefully express dissent.
Silverman said he hopes atheists won't be the last group to erect a monument in this courtyard. He wants other groups to follow suit. All viewpoints have a right to be heard, he said.
Michael Fulford, a 24-year-old from Pensacola, said he likes having a marketplace of ideas ranging from the Christian to the secular and beyond, but he questioned whether it is appropriate in front of a courthouse.
"This is not really making a marketplace," he said. "It's making a battleground.
"When you walk into a courthouse, you should not be an atheist. You should not be a Christian. You should not be a Jew. You should be a person seeking justice."
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.