STARKE — 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. Atheists are about the real and the physical, so 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 taken away from the courthouse lawn in this rural, conservative north Florida town best known for the prison that confines death row inmates. The Community Men's Fellowship erected the monument in what's described as a free speech zone. During mediation on the case, the atheist group was told 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 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 non-religion."
About 200 people attended the unveiling. Most were supportive, though there were protesters, including a group from Florida League of the South that had signs that said "Yankees Go Home."
"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."
After a cover was taken off the 1,500-pound granite bench Saturday, people rushed to have their pictures taken on it. The bench has 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.
"Some people think it's an attack simply by us exerting our existence. They put a monument on a public lawn that, if you put it in context, says atheists should be killed," Silverman said. "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."
At one point someone in a car driving by tossed a toilet seat and a roll of toilet paper at the crowd. Neither struck anyone. At another point, Eric Hovind, 35, of Pensacola jumped atop the peak of the monument and shouted his thanks to the atheists for giving him a platform to declare Jesus is real. Atheists shouted at him, and he stepped down after about a minute. One man yelled that religion is a fairy tale.
"The problem is it's not a fairy tale," Hovind said. "We definitely have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
Hovind and Tubbs did say 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, the director of a Washington D.C.-area office of American Atheists. "We protests 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."
A call to the group that sponsored the Ten Commandments monument, the Community Men's Fellowship, wasn't returned. But the group gave Facebook updates on the legal battle with the American Atheists and praised the compromise that allowed them to keep their monument.
"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. It's their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that's what matters," the group posted.
While Silverman said he believes religion is wrong and teachings in the Bible are violent, he said he welcomes non-Christian religions to follow the atheists' example and put in their own monuments in free-speech zones.
"I will back them because it will be their right," he said. "This is one of the tricks that Christians have used, because they go up and call it a free-speech zone and then they're unopposed. They get their government legitimization because nobody else calls their bluff and puts something in."