“There are only two ways to show equality: all or none,” said Ken Loukinen, a regional director for American Atheists. Bradford County, Fla., is experimenting with the “all” approach.
Bradford, a small county of 27,000 between Gainesville and Jacksonville, has reached a deal to let the 50-year-old national atheist organization install a 1,500-pound granite bench near an existing Ten Commandments monument that prompted a lawsuit after it was installed last year.
The bench will include quotations from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists. It will also include a list of Old Testament punishments for violating the Ten Commandments, including death and stoning.
The county established its courthouse courtyard as a “free speech forum” back in 2011. Organizations must pay for monuments installed there at no cost to the government.
American Atheists sued Bradford County after the Ten Commandments monument went up last year and demanded that it be removed. The Community Men’s Fellowship, a local Christian group that paid for the Ten Commandments monument, filed its own lawsuit demanding that it remain in place.
The Ten Commandments make “atheists feel like second-class citizens,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. Negotiations led to the creation of the bench through the free speech experiment.
The news sparked heated and even humorous debate both in public and online. One commentator wrote the monument “gives me a place to sit as I admire the Ten Commandments and to teach my son about God.” A dry response said it proves “atheists actions are useful to others.”
As expected, the “free speech” area is not really free. William Sexton, attorney for the county, said groups cannot simply erect purely religious monuments. The county has an application process, and the monuments must include the commemoration of people, events, and ideas that relate to the history of the U.S., Florida, or Bradford County.
As it stands, these will be the only two monuments in the courtyard. But the “free speech” area could foreseeably become a posthumous debate of historical icons. The current guidelines could even allow alligators and Disney characters to join the fray.
But more seriously, some worry that current rules will allow a white supremacy monument. County officials did not return a phone call this morning to clarify the selection process.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bench shows Bradford County, after allowing the Ten Commandments monument, must now go to “silly lengths.”
Sexton provided his legal services for free, meaning the county used no taxpayer money on the monuments or lawsuits. The bench will be unveiled June 29.