For years a battle has raged between people who maintain that the United States is a Christian nation, founded upon Biblical principles and specifically intended to be Christian, and those who say that the U.S. is and was always designed to be free from any religious sponsorship whatsoever. One of the key arguments that represent this debate is the posting of the Ten Commandments on public (government) property in the U.S., such as in courthouses or public school buildings. Some conservative Christian groups say that such postings, either as a simple framed poster or as a larger granite monument, is perfectly acceptable. Other people, whether atheists, people of other religions than Christian, or even Christians who oppose any blending of Church and State, say that such a posting is unconstitutional.
One memorable example of this argument involves Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama, who had a monument including the Ten Commandments installed in Alabama’s supreme court building rotunda in 2001. After years of legal battles, the monument was found to be unconstitutional, violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that no U.S. Government will directly or indirectly endorse or promote one religion over another. A U.S. District Court judge ordered the monument removed. Moore refused. He himself was removed from office for ethics violations and the monument was taken away. Moore has since won election back to his seat as Chief Justice in Alabama again.
In other places, the fight against such monuments has not gone as well for their opponents. This was the case in Starke, Florida, at the Bradford County courthouse square. This Ten Commandments monument is outside. Since opponents have not been successful in having it removed, they decided to prove their points another way. They erected a monument of their own.
The 1,500-pound granite structure was put in place by the organization American Atheists. It is structured as a functional bench, with several messages engraved on it. These include a breakdown of the punishments that were enumerated for violations of each of the Ten Commandments – most were punishable by death – as well as other quotes, including these:
“‘… the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion …’ Article II, Treaty of Tripoli. The treaty as sent to the U.S. Senate, where it was read aloud in its entirety and approved unanimously. President John Adams signed it and proclaimed it to the nation on June 10, 1797.”
“When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it can not support itself and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of it’s being a bad one.” – Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Richard Price, October 1780
At the unveiling ceremony for the monument, a Christian radio show host, Eric Hovind, jumped up on the monument to preach to the gathered crowd, mostly atheists. He was ignored and eventually left. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, officiated the dedication of the monument. He said, “[Hovind] tried to mute the success of the event, but succeeded only in reiterating the need to fight for equality and vapid opposition we receive when we assert our rightful place in society.”
American Atheists say this is the first atheist monument allowed on government property in the United States.
The group that put up the initial Ten Commandments monument just a few feet away put a statement on their own Facebook page about the atheist monument.
“We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that’s what matters.”