Should Atheists Ever Support Religious Icons on Public Property?

Ten Commandments monument
Bradford County Courthouse, FL • free2think.org

This is an unsolicited guest post by BG on the important subject of the recent dedication of the first atheist monument on public property.

The answer is no.

On June 29, there was a dedication ceremony for the first atheist monument on public property. First, some background will be given on what led up to this event and then a brief discussion will be provided on American Atheists' president Dave Silverman's declaration that he would support other religious minorities should they choose to erect a religious monument.

In May of last year, it was discovered that there was a Ten Commandments (10C) monument on the Bradford County courthouse courtyard in Starke, FL. A protest was organized, and several Floridians from all over the state protested against this structure because they felt it violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. When the protest did not result in the removal of the Decalogue, American Atheists (AA) sued to have it removed. After mediation, there was a settlement that resulted in the 10C monument remaining on public property as well as the allowance of an AA display.

The individuals responsible for the 10C monument were surprisingly rather gracious about it. From The Christian Post:
Ken Weaver, member of the Starke, Fla.-based group Community Men's Fellowship, told The Christian Post about how he feels regarding the atheist monument bench.

"Simply put, while we do not agree with the 'faith' of the American Atheists that disregards the existence of God, we do believe in their right to freely express their beliefs," said Weaver. "As long as their display meets the requirements of our county ordinance, they have the same freedoms of expression as those of any other citizen or group."

In October 2011, Bradford County established a "Free Speech Forum" outside of its courthouse so that various private groups could place monuments at their own expense."
At AA's monument ceremony, it was announced by president Dave Silverman that 50 more AA benches will be erected across the country wherever a religious monument is on public property (an anonymous donor set aside $500,000 to do so). Other than the monies possibly being used for other more philanthropic means, secular displays on public property are not barred and should garner support from secularists.

Dave Silverman at the atheist monument •
As an aside, perhaps AA will consider more generalized displays without the words "American Atheists" and their logo so prominently displayed. A tasteful, small "Sponsored By AA" would suffice so as to represent more atheists and even religious secularists, not just the organization and its members. Also, the question must be asked: will AA first attempt to have the religious displays removed before petitioning to have theirs put into place? Because their mission, in part, is to advocate for "the absolute separation of religion from government" one would assume that they will first request the removal of these displays before petitioning to have theirs put up.

Now to the main point: Dave Silverman and Blair Scott were guests on a recent episode of the podcast The Pink Atheist hosted by Rachel Johnson, where they discussed the upcoming dedication ceremony. While many good points were made, some comments could be seen as troubling. In an effort to retain context, you will find a partial transcript below. The audio was really muffled in many parts, so this might not be 100% accurate, but you can listen for yourselves here (update: link no longer active) starting at 34:50:
Rachel: Do you think it [AA's display] is going to eventually create another lawsuit or are they going to want to remove it or the Ten Commandments (muffled)?

Dave: Um, well frankly I hope so. I don't think the Courthouse lawn needs any of this stuff. Um, and if they do remove the Ten Commandments, we will remove our monument. Uh, this is something that we have said over and over: they remove the Ten Commandments, we will happily remove the monument but as long as the Ten Commandments sits there and as long as we sit there that's not going to be any lawsuit from us but there may be lawsuits from other organizations, other religious minorities who also want to use the free speech zone. And, uh, I will support those religious minorities because they have every right to do it. This is what you get from a free speech zone. You get free speech.

Rachel: Does that mean if somebody wanted to put up a monument of the Koran that you would support them?

Dave: I would! Absolutely I would! They have every right. They have every right. Now do I think they should- do I think it should be on there are at? No. I think it should all be gone. What I am saying is that equality is an all or nothing (muffled) and we as ethical human beings have to support that. So if the Christians are allowed to put up the 10 Commandments and we're allowed to put up a monument to secularism and the separation of church and state, yes the Muslims should be allowed, uh, to put up a monument to, uh, pedophile prophets and yes, the yes a Scientologist. Yes they should all be allowed to put up whatever they want because this is a free speech zone. And, uh, freedom of each, um, is ya know a (muffled) and it's something we should all cherish (muffled).. ethical people we have to protect other people's rights as well.

Blair: Yeah equal access is often a tool to kind of force the view of neutrality on a government, ya know when they realize "well we don't really want the Satanists in here maybe we should just get rid of everything".

Dave: Wouldn't that be interesting? Wouldn't that be interesting?

Rachel: I think it would be great if this sets a precedent for all over America that people really take a second look and a second thought before they go put up other monuments of the 10 Commandments and do you really want atheists to come to town and put up their monument alongside yours because, ya know obviously you're saying right now, "Hey it will happen!" So, I think it's great.

Blair: Speaking of precedent, what is the precedent on this? Is that a city judge that ruled a county judge? Where does that precedent hold?

Dave: Well, the precedent is in the Federal Equal Access law and the 1st and the 14th amendment. You can't treat one group of people differently from another because of religious views. Um, so there was not a precedent set here in Starke because this was a settlement. So in the settlement there is no precedent. But, uh, there is precedent from the Supreme Court ruled this way. I don't have the, uh, case in front of me right now but the Supreme Court ruled over and over again in fact that religion (muffled) and that everybody has equality in the eyes of the law. So, um, to want- I mean, think about it they settled this case where they are allowing to put the first ever atheist monument up there. They didn't do it because they thought they could win the lawsuit. They did do it because they thought- they knew they would lose. Which of course they did. Which of course they would have. That's why they let us in. That's why they let us settle the lawsuit. That's why we're going in. That's why I'm providing support and why everyone else will do the same thing. Because they're smart, because we're right, because we have that right, and we're going to exercise it from now on.
Some highlights from the interview that should give you pause:
Rachel: Does that mean if somebody wanted to put up a monument of the Koran that you would support them?

Dave: I would! Absolutely I would!
All things considered, should advocates of church/state separation ever support religious groups putting up religious displays on public property just to prove a point or in the hope that this results in the Christians backing down? What if…what if that doesn't work and we end up with a plethora of religious displays on public property? In this case, it seemed that the religious group offered little resistance to AA's display, so why would it be expected that there would be resistance to other groups?

Silverman mentioned free speech several times as well as equal access. In general, free speech is a good thing but not if it allows religious encroachment into the public square. Is this a fight for religious freedom in government or the separation of religion and government? How will AA be able to fight these violations if they have supported the rights of all religious groups to place religious displays on public land?

AA should state unequivocally that they don't want the 10C monument there, and similarly, that they don't want a Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon display there either with no additional claims of supporting them in any fashion and for any reason. The farthest they should go is to argue that their display is secular but will be willing to take it down if the religious display is taken down. Again, AA should not support any religious displays or even put themselves in the same category as religious groups. Atheism is not a religion.
Blair: Speaking of precedent, what is the precedent on this? Is that a city judge that ruled a county judge? Where does that precedent hold?

Dave: Well the precedent is in the Federal Equal Access law and the 1st and the 14th amendment.
In reality, the Supreme Court has struggled for years to come up with clear rules on what religious displays, ranging from crosses to the Ten Commandments, can be put on public property, along with secular items. It has gone back and forth several times in the last decade. For example, in Pleasant Grove v. Summum, the Court ruled that a municipality that allowed a privately donated Ten Commandments monument to be displayed on public property need not permit the religion of Summum to put up its own statue of similar size. The ruling shows that a city, county, etc. does not have to grant equal access for all religious views. Why?
Justice Samuel Alito, in his opinion for the court, explained that a municipality's acceptance and acquisition of a privately funded permanent monument erected in a public [space] while refusing to accept other privately funded permanent memorials is a valid expression of governmental speech, which is permissible and not an unconstitutional interference with the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
So no, unfortunately this is not as clear-cut as Silverman implies. If Satanists, for example, want to put up a monument in Starke, there is precedent for their request to be denied because of "governmental speech". So where does that leave AA? It means that the 10C monument can be left up with no consequences. So, if AA thought they would win the lawsuit and had the 10C monument taken down, they should have done so.
Dave:…They did do it because they thought- they knew they would lose
See above. If Bradford County knew they would lose, then AA knew they would win. That would have meant that the 10C monument would have come down, and all would be well - a victory for church/state separation! Why didn't AA go that route?

We need to consistently fight these religious displays. If there really is precedent to have them taken down, then we should settle for nothing less. We can't just hope that an atheist (or Muslim or Mormon) monument will convince Christians or anyone else to take theirs down. There should never be support for any religious monuments on public property. Freedom of speech should not result in passivity with regards to the separation of church and state.