STARKE, Fla. — A group of atheists unveiled a monument to their nonbelief in God on Saturday to sit alongside a granite slab that lists the Ten Commandments in front of the Bradford County courthouse.
As a small group of protesters blasted Christian country music and waved “Honk for Jesus” signs, the atheists celebrated what they believe is the first atheist monument allowed on government property in the United States.
“When you look at this monument, the first thing you will notice is that it has a function . . . we selected to place this monument in the form of a bench,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists.
It also serves another function: a counter to the religious monument that the New Jersey-based group wanted removed. It’s a case of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
American Atheists sued to try to have the stone slab with the Ten Commandments removed from the courthouse lawn in this rural, conservative town in northern Florida. The Community Men’s Fellowship erected the monument in what is described as a free-speech zone. During mediation on the case, the atheist group was told that it could have its own monument, too.
“We’re not going to let them do it without a counterpoint,” Silverman said. “If we do . . . it’s going to appear very strongly that the government actually endorses one religion over another, or — I should say — religion in general over non-religion.”
About 200 people attended the unveiling. Most were supportive, although there were protesters, including a group from the Florida League of the South that had signs that said, “Yankees Go Home.”
“We reject outsiders coming to Florida . . . 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.”
After the 1,500-pound granite bench was unveiled, people rushed to have their pictures taken on it. The bench bears quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists. It also has a list of Old Testament punishments for violating the Ten Commandments, including death and stoning.
At one point, Eric Hovind, 35, of Pensacola, Fla., jumped atop the peak of the monument and shouted his thanks to the atheists for giving him a platform to declare that Jesus is real. Atheists shouted at him, and he stepped down after about a minute.
Hovind and Tubbs did say that they respect the right of the group to install the monument, even if they disagree with the message behind it.
And the atheists said they expected protesters.
“There always are,” said Rick Wingrove, director of a Washington, D.C., area office of American Atheists. “We protest their events, they protests our events. As long as everybody’s cordial and let people speak. This is our day, not theirs. We’re fine with them being here.”