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. 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 nonreligion."
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."