By Joseph L. Conn
Last Sunday, the residents of Dixie County, Fla., rallied on behalf of a controversial Ten Commandments monument that sits in front of their courthouse.
One woman held a sign that let people know exactly what she thinks of those who object to the government-endorsed religious display.
“If you don't like what our USA was built on,” her sign read, “‘GET OUT.'”
Well, sister, here’s some news: the United States of America was “built on” the constitutional separation of church and state. So if anybody needs to leave, it’s not us.
As we have reported before, the Dixie County Board of County Commissioners approved the positioning of a six-ton granite Commandments monument on the courthouse porch. In addition to the Decalogue, the monument features the admonition, “Love God and keep his commandments.”
The Florida ACLU challenged the display in federal district court, and – predictably – won. The county – perhaps just as predictably – appealed. (The commissioners are represented by Mat Staver, head of Liberty Counsel and dean of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University School of Law.)
At that point, Americans United weighed in, offering a friend-of-the-court brief upholding church-state separation. We argued that Commandments displays have become weapons of choice in the Religious Right’s crusade to make America an officially Christian nation.
Speakers at Sunday’s rally in Cross City did their best to prove our point.
Joe Anderson Jr., a local businessman and backer of fundamentalist Christian evangelism, paid for the creation and installation of the Commandments monument.
According to The Gainesville Sun, Anderson told the crowd of 1,500 that the United States was founded on Christian principles, and the county has a right to display a monument to the commandments that Christians observe.
Anderson also said that he objects to banners in Gainesville advertising the local gay pride festival, but he hasn't challenged them in court.
“Those nice banners strung across University Avenue, it makes me sick,” he said, “but I ain't sued anybody.”
Nothing like a little anti-gay bigotry to accompany bigotry against religious minorities. The two often go hand in hand.
(Shrill rhetoric seemed the order of the day. Another speaker attacked the ACLU as “that anti-Christian league from the underworld.” Actually, the Florida ACLU is based in Miami.)
After the rally, State Rep. Leonard Bembry (D-Greenville) defended Dixie County’s sectarian display. He told The Sun, “This country was built based on what the Ten Commandments represent. It's so important that we as Americans preserve this way of life that we have.”
Bembry is wrong, of course. Our country was built on the Constitution, not any religious tradition’s mandates.
Bembry is right, however, about one thing: Americans have a solemn duty to “preserve this way of life that we have.” And an essential feature of our way of life is a government that does not favor one religion over others – or religion over non-religion.
Put the first ten amendments to the Constitution – our precious Bill of Rights – on the courthouse front porch if you want, but display the Decalogue at church. That way, all Americans – from atheists to Zoroastrians and everyone in between – will feel welcome when they want to conduct business with their government.
On the Dixie County Commissioners’ official website, this message to nonresidents is posted: “Visit here or settle here. Know you’re most welcome!”
Maybe they ought to add, “As long as you're a fundamentalist Christian.”