In Starke, Florida, a group of atheists placed monument in front of the Bradford County courthouse to express their nonbelief in God. The bench is placed near the Ten Commandments monument on the government property. “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” (Farrington 9). Previously, American Atheists sued in an attempt to have the granite Ten Commandments monument removed. The result of the mediation was that atheists were permitted to erect their own monument. The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, comments about religious monuments on government property: “We’re not going to let them do it without a counterpoint. 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.” The main debate in this case is whether or not it is neutral to include both monuments or to just ban religious statues on government property.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment serves two main purposes: 1) forbids the government from establishing an official religion; and 2) prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another, religion over non-religion, and non-religion over religion (however, strict separationists support favoring non-religion). In this case, Silverman is addressing the second part of the Establishment Clause; however, because atheists are now permitted to display their bench next to the Ten Commandments on government property, one must ask if this is a neutral policy. In 1988, the Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in Allegheny v. ACLU. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County Courthouse was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union for its holiday displays. The display inside the courthouse depicted a nativity scene. Outside of the building was a Hanukkah menorah and a Christmas tree. The debate in this case was whether or not these displays violate the Establishment Clause. The Court ruled that the nativity scene inside of the building violated the Establishment Clause, while the Hanukkah menorah and Christmas tree outside did not. Justice O’Connor (in the majority opinion) believed that the outside decorations celebrated the religious pluralism of American culture. The Court concluded that not all religious celebrations on government property violate the Establishment Clause. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Van Orden v. Perry that a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building was constitutional. Tradition and historical significance were the major arguments used to prove that this was not the establishment of religion. The Supreme Court presented an interesting rationale in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum in 2008. A park in the city had a monument of the Ten Commandments. A religious organization known as Summum wrote to the mayor in hopes of placing a monument that was significant to their religion in one of the city’s parks; however, the mayor denied their request, claiming that the Ten Commandments were permitted for historical purposes. The Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to free speech and that the Ten Commandments represented the city’s views. According to these Supreme Court decisions, the government’s right to free speech trumps that of an American citizen. Thus, the placement of the atheist’s bench in Florida raises the issue of the government’s freedom of speech versus the freedom of speech and freedom of religion of the American Atheists.
I agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1988 that the displays outside of government buildings (but still on government property) are constitutional and do not violate the Establishment Clause. A majority of the American people’s ancestors came to the United States for religious freedom, and our nation always promotes diversity. Therefore, we should celebrate the religious pluralism that we have in the United States. I also agree with the Court’s ruling in Van Orden v. Perry; however, I disagree with the ruling in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. In this case, it is evident that the Court places the government above the American people, which is not what historical American figures have intended (“government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln)). While the Ten Commandments have a greater influence on the history and tradition of this country, I do not have a problem with the atheist’s bench. Some claim that they are offended by religious monuments on government property; however, there is no constitutional right to not be offended. By having two displays that represent various religions (the Ten Commandments portraying the Jews and the Christians, and the bench representing the atheists), the government is not promoting any one particular religion; rather, it is a celebration of the diverse nation that we call “The Land of the Free.”
What do you think? Is having monuments from various views not neutral? Does it violate the Establishment Clause?