Atheists lose first round

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Application can be fixed, come back in 30 days

By Lou Elliott Jones

The Williston Atheists group's request to erect a granite bench monument on the Levy County Courthouse forum between the courthouse and the State Attorney-Public Defenders offices was unanimously defeated by the Levy County Commissioners due to flaws in the group's application. 

While the issue drew a large crowd to fill Courtroom A, not everyone stood to speak. That may have been due to Commission Chair Ryan Bell announcing that a staff analysis had found problems with the application and has “led to the determination that the monument does not meet criteria” set forth in the county's Monument Placement Guidelines.

However, the vote is not a death knell for the application as the group has 30 days to amend the application and come back before the commission under the Monument Placement Guidelines.

The atheist proposal was criticized for not being an organized legal entity like a corporation, a professional organization or a non-profit group which would allow it to obtain the required bond, assume perpetual responsibility for the monument's upkeep and any liability issues. The analysis also noted the group does not include the entire text of the of the documents quoted on the monument and they may not have the required connection to “ the development, origins or foundations of American or Florida law, or Levy County.  

Williston Atheists organizer Ray Sparrow of Morriston said after the meeting that he will be consulting with the American Atheist parent organization of his group, before taking any further action. He said he expects the national group will work out any obstacles. 

“I don't know what I am going to do,” he said in a phone interview. “But I was not surprised by the decision.” 

While Sparrow told the commission he wanted to avoid any discussion of religion, preferring to frame his request as a matter of fairness. “We should be afforded the same respect as those who erected the Ten Commandments monument which does not represent all the views,” he said. He said the atheists, contrary to some perceptions, “live our lives in an ethical moral manner.” And he noted that atheists include military veterans who fought for the freedom to erect an atheist monument. 

Eloise Flemming, who said she recently moved to Chiefland, said, “The display of the Ten Commandments is not a religious display because most have been incorporated into secular law.”

She said the atheists should display the monument on their own building and that approval of the bench would lead to people “applying for Jewish religious expression, Muslins and Hindus...”

Gordon Keller, who said sometimes being in a position of authority is not easy, urged rejection saying the monument guidelines were “not written to infringe on anybody's rights.”

Sylvia McCullar said people misunderstand the role of the Ten Commandments. “It is a real foundation for the law,” she said. “If we do not obey those 10 things civilization falls apart.” She praised the monument guidelines as being well written. “Personally I do not feel like the proposal fits the guidelines.. 

She asked the commissioners to consider all the information you see and vote “no.”

Sam Norris of Bronson said he was there to espouse an unpopular position: “I think we are profaning the Ten Commandments. My recommendation is that the board consider removing (it) and consider not ever allowing a religious monument.” Norris said he made the suggestion as a church member. 

 “It's profane because we have used it as a battle banner for which it was not intended. It was not intended to engender the strife which is in place today.”

He said the atheists have also profaned the Founding Fathers by using excerpts of their statements on religion on their proposed monument.

Jack Schofield of Yankeetown, called the Ten Comandments “a good guideline for living” and asked what services the atheists provide. He also condemned the parent organization's website for having a link called “evil bible.” “These people want to create upheaval,” Schofield said. 

Bronson Mayor Franklin Schuler said, “I am just asking the board to not consider the atheist name. Where do you stop at? If you do one (muniment) you're setting a precedent.”

Francis Fordham of Silver Springs, said “This is called a forum.. A forum's definition is a free exchange of ideas.”

She went on: “When you put a Ten Commandments monument up there you opened yourself up to this. It is religious.”

Atheists, she said, are good people who do good works. “We just do it without believing in God.”

Sparrow spoke after her saying, “For way, way too long the majority has been allowed a position of power and influence and they are spoiled. They feel they have a blank check to do anything they want to do. They're not the only game in town. There's other kids on the playground and they want to play. It's a new day.”

He repeated that the application “is about equal and fair treatment under the law and we're entitled to that … the popular and unpopular … the loved and the loathed ...”