A small city in heavily Christian northern Florida is about to become home to the first public monument in the United States dedicated to atheism.
Florida members of American Atheists, a national advocacy group, plan to erect a 1,500-pound granite display in front of the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla., next month, opposite a controversial year-old display of the Ten Commandments outside the same courthouse.
“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.
The new structure will feature quotes related to secularism from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair on a 4-foot-high panel, alongside a bench. It will stand in a small square in front of the courthouse, opposite the 5-foot, 6-ton Ten Commandments monument sponsored by a Christian group.
The dueling monuments in Starke are part a growing number of conflicts about public displays of religion. In February, a district judge dismissed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and ruled that another Ten Commandments display in front of a courthouse in northwestern Florida’s Dixie County could stay put. Controversies have also erupted this year over Ten Commandments displays in public schools in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
American Atheists sued Bradford County last July, saying the Christian monument in front of the county courthouse was a public endorsement of religion. In response, the county asked Community Men’s Fellowship, the organization that sponsored the display, to take it down. But the fellowship replied by saying it had “prayerfully considered” the request and would not comply. The county and American Atheists went to a court-ordered mediation in March and settled upon the atheists getting their own monument.
Will Sexton, an attorney who represented the county in the settlement, said it never intended to sponsor any religion with the Ten Commandments monument, nor is it endorsing secularism with the new atheist display.