An atheist group celebrated the unveiling of a stone bench on Saturday in front of the Bradford County courthouse in Florida amid supporters and protestors alike. The group, American Atheists, had the bench placed in a “free speech zone” right next to a granite slab etched with the Ten Commandments.
The stone bench is carved with quotes representative of atheist values and is believed to be the first atheist monument allowed on government property in the states.
"When you look at this monument, the first thing you will notice is that it has a function," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. "Atheists are about the real and the physical, so we selected to place this monument in the form of a bench."
The other intended purpose, however, was for the atheists to exercise their free speech rights — if Christians can have the Ten Commandments on government property, they could have a monument as well.
Initially, the atheist group fought to have the Ten Commandments monument removed, but Christians contended that the area was a “free speech zone.” So, instead, American Atheists decided to join in on the “free speech” by erecting their own monument.
"We’re not going to let them do it without a counterpoint," Silverman said. "If we do it without a counterpoint, it’s going to appear very strongly that the government actually endorses one religion over another, or — I should say — religion in general over nonreligion."
About 200 people showed up for the unveiling, but not all of them were in support of the monument. Protesters joined the gathering to blare Christian music and hold up signs reading, “Honk for Jesus.” A car that drove by tossed out a toilet seat and toilet paper as another sign of protest.
"We reject outsiders coming to Florida — especially from outside what we refer to as the Bible Belt — and trying to remake us in their own image,’’ said Michael Tubbs, state chairman of the Florida League of the South. ‘‘We do feel like it’s a stick in the eye to the Christian people of Florida to have these outsiders come down here with their money and their leadership and promote their outside values here."
For the most part, however, Christian groups and leaders explained that they must respect the group’s right to free speech despite their disagreements over the message.
"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," wrote Community Men’s Fellowship on Facebook, which is the group that sponsored the Ten Commandments monument. "It’s their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that’s what matters.’’
Silverman admitted that installing the bench was not purely for free speech, but also to serve as a counterpoint against the pervasiveness of Christianity in America.
"It is an attack, but it’s an attack on Christian privilege, not an attack on Christians themselves, and not so much an attack on Christianity,” Silverman said.
The bench includes a variety of quotes from prominent leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded American Atheists. Other quotes were from the Old Testament and highlighted the punishments outlined for people who violate the Ten Commandments.