In this particular installment of “you can’t fight City Hall, but you can shit on the steps”, we have the Bradford County courthouse in Stake, Florida. As of next month, it will be home to a granite monument to secularism and atheism alongside the monument to the Ten Commandments already displayed in the courtyard.
I was originally going to say something about not wanting anything in front of the courthouse, saving maybe a monument of the United States Constitution, or maybe something representing the state constitution as well … but according to the designer of the monument, that’s pretty much the same way he feels.
“We’d rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own,” said Ken Loukinen, the director of regional operations for American Atheists who designed the monument.
Oh. Well. Okay then.
This whole mess started last July, when the American Atheists organization sued Bradford County, arguing that their Ten Commandments monument constituted an endorsement of the (Judeo-) Christian religion. After a court-ordered mediation, both parties agreed that instead of taking down the existing monument, American Atheists could put up their own. The only catch is that it had to have something to do with the basis of national or state law (i.e. no statues of Hitch giving anyone the bird).
I still see a big problem. True, Bradford county got out of this mess by allowing AA to put up their own monument, but we’re seriously running the risk of turning this entire issue into a giant pissing match. Here’s why:
It will include a quote from the Treaty of Tripoli, a 1796 peace agreement between the U.S. and North African Muslims, which has become a rallying point for atheists because of its declaration that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
The display will also feature Biblical quotes that supporters say correspond to the Ten Commandments, such as Deuteronomy 13:10, which says to “stone him with stones” so “that he die” in reference to people who worship other gods. (The first commandment reads, “You shall have no other gods before me.”)
I’m not going to argue that any of this isn’t true … but the fact is that Loukinen is right: we shouldn’t have anything in front of the courthouse. At all. Atheist or theist. And there especially shouldn’t be a monument to a set of ancient Hebrew laws that demand – first and foremost – that we are to worship no other gods but Jehovah. For something that contradicts the First Amendment by definition is to be held up and proclaimed as the basis for American and Floridian law is simply nonsensical.
Yet here we are. Let’s take a look at this thing (click on it for a larger picture):
The monument includes passages from the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli …
“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”
… a quote from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists …
“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”
… and from Ben Franklin …
“When religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
There’s a section on Side D (which is tough to see and I wish I had a better image) that describes the punishments for not keeping each of the commandments. It serves as an interesting reminder of exactly how far we’ve come as a secular society and also of the things that we no longer do to enforce what others feel to be the cornerstone of our modern morality.
I keep thinking that even with what some fellow atheists would consider a “win”, I consider a step in the wrong direction. I’m reminded of the quote from the Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong … you’re just an asshole.” It’s not that I think any of these things on the monument are factually incorrect, or that American Atheists are doing this just to get attention. They’re doing it to establish some sense of fairness to a situation that would otherwise be perceived as an endorsement of Christianity. I am, however, convinced that it will be interpreted by the average Floridian as a grab for attention and nothing more. The only realistic option would have been to replace the commandments monument with a copy of the Constitution or something like it. Instead, we now have the commandments PLUS an ad for atheism. Kind of defeats the purpose, in my opinion.
Well, as I keep saying, time will tell. I lay ten to one odds that within a week of this thing being unveiled, it will be permanently defaced by a God warrior with a chip on his shoulder and a chisel in his hand. I’ll be more than happy to be proven wrong, but I’ve seen what sort of attention a simple billboard had received. History will likely repeat itself here too.