Jesus is Alive in Bradford County, Florida: My Day at a Ten Commandments Protest

This is a guest post by Annie Thomas. Annie is a science teacher and writer from Gainesville, Florida. She last wrote about her night at a Kirk Cameron-hosted “marriage-strengthening” event.

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On May 3rd of this year, a monument of the Ten Commandments was unveiled at the Bradford County courthouse in Florida. The $20,000 monument was a gift from Lee Anderson of Lake City. Anderson gave a similar “gift” to Dixie County a few years ago. The Dixie County monument was ruled unconstitutional in July of 2011, but still stands today as the county appeals. The Bradford commissioners knew about the state of the Dixie County monument before they agreed to acquire their own. Lawsuits are nothing new to the city of Starke (home of the Bradford County courthouse). In March of 2007, a federal judge ruled that the crucifix affixed to the city’s water tower (and was even illuminated at night) was unconstitutional and had to come down.

Here is the Ten Commandments monument unveiling ceremony that took place a couple of weeks ago:

On Saturday, May 19th, about eighteen atheists traveled from all over Florida to protest the newly-erected Ten Commandments monument. The Bradford County Courthouse is located in Starke, Florida, a small north central city that straddles U.S. 301 with Camp Blanding to the east and Florida State Prison to the west.

As the protestors proceeded from the parking lot to the front of the courthouse, they passed a circle of thirty bowed heads that were praying for strength and courage. Several people took turns leading the group in prayer, and many prayed for the hearts of the atheists to be turned over to Jesus.

The woman above was saying, “Father God, we’ve remained quiet for too long. We will let your word be heard, Father God.”

Another group of counter-protestors were in a similar circle in the courtyard of the U-shaped building where the Ten Commandments monument stands. By 11:00a, the scheduled start time of the protest, the atheists were lined up along the sidewalk facing U.S. 301, and the counter-protesting group was growing. A headcount at 11:30a revealed that there were 100 counter-protesters and about 18 atheists.

Both groups were in good spirits and relatively peaceful towards each other. However, I overheard Ken Weaver, a Bradford County resident who led the dedication of the monument on May 3rd say to his friend, “They’re not arguing against Church and State; they are arguing about our religion being a myth.” His friend responded, “They’re just a bunch of damn Democrats,” to which both men chuckled.

I briefly interviewed Laura Finley, who was the National Day of Prayer organizer for Bradford County. When asked if there might be a more appropriate place for the monument than the courthouse lawn, she said no, as it represented the word of God, the person who created us. She continued, “We would be kind of like… animals who have no souls” without it. “The protestors here today,” Finley continued, “they don’t have any beliefs in anything.” Finley was quick to point out that she was not at the event to counter-protest, but rather to share her support that the monument had a right to be there.

Early in the event, an unidentified preacher in a gold vest started to encourage the crowd to sing and pray. He utilized an interesting tactic to decipher who was there to protest and who was there to counter-protest. After leading the group in singing “Jesus Loves Me,” he asked participants to shout out if they love Jesus. He then asked them to raise their arms in the air if they love Jesus. He tried to corral the counter-protestors away from the atheists by saying, “Come on people! You’re talking to the wind!” A big circle was formed around the Ten Commandments for more prayer.

The atheist protestors came from all over the state. Nathaniel Hall, a member of the Tallahassee Atheists (in the red shirt below), was the first to break the invisible barrier and converse with counter-protesters.

Melody Delaney, another member of the Tallahassee Atheists and founding member of the Tallahassee Secular Chorus, shared her reason for coming out to protest: “We are not trying to disparage anyone’s religion… we just believe in separation of church and state as Constitutional law.”

Sean Fraser traveled from Crystal River wearing two hats, one as a protester and another to cover the story for a blog he writes. When asked if he was surprised by the turn-out he said, “Of us? No. Of them? Yes.” This was Fraser’s first protest as an atheist, but he said he’d like to attend more.

Brandi Braschler, president of Freethinkers FSU, was not discouraged by the small turnout or the lack of press coverage. She was part of the group that “unannointed” roads in Polk County earlier this year. “No one was out there, but everyone posted on it” afterwards. As we spoke, a counter-protester (the woman above who was praying to “Father God”) interrupted our conversation. She said, “We don’t want tax payers dollars!” She continued on about “people like you” when Braschler calmly responded, “The First Amendment says a lot of things. But it’s up to the courts, the judges, to interpret what the Constitution means.” This made the other woman walk away, which I observed several times when the counter-protesters had no rebuttal.

I asked David Silverman (who was quick to point out he is not that David Silverman) why he traveled from his home in Jacksonville to protest. “I feel strongly about this and decided to give up a day’s work for this.” He was surprised by the massive monument that was erected and that it was actually a “solid, fixed display.” Silverman (holding the sign in the picture below) added that he had a “long, interesting talk with a Christian and I think I planted a germ.”

Rob Curry (in white shirt), president of the St. Petersburg chapter of Atheists of Florida, speaking with a counter-protester

Bridget Gaudette (right), Florida state director for American Atheists and organizer of the protest, chats with fellow protester in Starke, FL

A member of the motorcycle group 'F.A.I.T.H. Riders' waves his bible in the air at the Bradford County Courthouse

What surprised me most about the event was that this was not about religious rights, but strictly about Christianity. There was no attempt to pass this new monument off as representing a generic god that many could relate to, this was all about Jesus. I asked one counter-protester how he thought a non-Christian in his county might feel about the monument. He couldn’t see why they would care. “I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me” was his response.

The counter-protesters were giddy with delight in their numbers exceeding the protesters. One man yelled out to the crowd, “There’s more preachers in Starke than there are atheists today!” which very well may be true. But what failed to impress them was the great distance the protesters traveled to be in Starke today. Driving for a few hours (as opposed to walking down the street) requires a bit more dedication to a cause. As the sun rose directly overhead, the breeze died down, and stomachs started to ask for lunch, the majority of the counter-protesters drifted off to go about their life. When I asked Brandi Braschler how long she would be there, her response was, “I’m planning to stay here all day.”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Ah, the Ten Commandments, etched in stone…  I love the one about not boiling baby goats in their mother’s milk.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkCJ8rb8Grw 

    • Lee Miller

      Silly, that’s not one of the TEN commandments.  It’s one of the 600-however many commandments in the old Testament, ALL of which are equally important (break one commandment, you’ve broken them all, you know.) 

      It floors me that Christians have zero sensitivity to the feelings of non-Chrisitan citizens.  Did anyone ask them how they would respond if a Hindu donated a statue of Shiva for the courthouse square?  Is it REALLY that hard to look at things from someone else’s perspective?  Is it REALLY that hard to understand why “religiously neutral” is the only position government should take?

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Ah, but we are a Christian Nation!  Just like Jefferson said:

        Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

      • Stev84

        Actually, there are two completely different sets of ten commandments.

        When Moses first went to Mt. Sinai he spent a lot of time with god up there and he was given two tablets. But because he was absent for so long, his sheeple became impatient and built the golden calf. That pissed Moses off so much that he dropped and broke the tablets with god’s most important rules. Those are the ones that we generally call “Ten Commandments” today. In addition to that, he also set down several chapters worth of rules about slavery and other crap, but didn’t write those in stone.

        After Moses dealt with the calf situation (by killing 3000 people who didn’t agree with him), god appeared and told him to bring him some empty tablets (apparently he couldn’t make new ones himself this time) and wrote down a second, different set of commandments. That one includes silly rules about how he would like to be worshiped and sacrificed to, including “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”. He also told Moses that he will wipe out or displace several other tribes and ordered him to destroy all their temples.

        • Tom Spademan

           There are three sets, not two, that are traditionally identified as “teh” Decalogue: two versions of the Ethical Decalogue (Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21), and one called the Ritual Decalogue (Exodus, 34:11–26).  Scholars don’t think that the theological explanation, which you have given, is the proper explanation for their inclusion…  :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/robcurry Rob Curry

    I took the opportunity to ask numerous “counter-protesters” what, in their opinion, was the purpose of a religious monument on the county courthouse grounds. It’s notable that no one–not a single person–disputed that it was a religious monument. The answers varied, no one giving the same response (although over half tried to avoid the question).

    The responses ranged from one man who said “It shows that there is an authority above the authority of the state,” to a local preacher involved with putting up the monument who explained in detail that he strongly believes that local communities have the “right” to legislate government preference for a religion.

    In a state where you can be arrested for NOT praying at a government meeting (as happened last year in Bartow, Florida), the implications are very disturbing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500564877 John Duffee

       Wow. That is fucked up.  Do you have a good source for further reading on that?

  • Stev84

    Who let the inmates out of asylum?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    These people would be howling if some Satanists, Muslims, Pagans or even Buddhists set up a display on the county courthouse grounds.  Meanwhile they don’t see why their Christian display is so improper.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Excellent. That’s some real nice street activism. We need more of that!

  • L.Long

    I see nothing really wrong with the 10C’s being there.  There represent what the gov’mint and many of their xtian citizens are  all about…..pure dishonest hypocrisy.
    Just read the 10C’s and look over the crowd and at least 45% are actively violating at least 2 at any point in time.  And I’m sure there is at leat one potential killer in the group as well.  I have faith in the depravity of man & woman.

    • jdm8

      Not to mention Jesus making specific statements against showy public prayers, yet so many Christians fawn all over Tim Tebow’s showy touchdown prayers.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500564877 John Duffee

        Oh yeah, those are the absolute worst.  There’s this sick obsession amongst the evangelicals I was stuck around growing up about getting as many of the loudest, most public, most saccharine and sweet-sounding prayers as possible as if it was a game in which one was scoring points.  And just about none of them had ever even heard of the concept of being able to pray silently either.

        Actually had a few of them accuse me of heresy or being possessed by the devil and hearing voices in my head because I was able to think. *facepalm*

  • Clarissa

    I think I can identify the preacher– it’s definitely Cee Lo Green. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026429669 Crucie Fiction
  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    …and after all that prayer, we are assured such things are merely an acknowledgement of the historical significance of Christianity in America. That is all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=714082925 Nathaniel Hall

    Thanks for this Hemant! Thank all of you for your support! XD

  • http://www.zenbuffy.com/ Jennifer Keane (zenbuffy()

    When I saw the image of the woman kneeling (the one talking about Father God, second image in the post), the first thing that came to my mind was the following bible quote:

    “And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:5-6:8

    It seems to me that a lot of people praying in public for their right to pray in public aught to reread the bible a little more carefully…

    • Callice

      Don’t be confusing them with what their Bible actually says ;)

  • Duke Airanda Tension

    Which version was put there?  The rc or the protestant?  They are different.  this is why your constitution seperates state and church, if you are to have a state religion (as we in the UK have one) and it is to be xtian, which version? The monolithic RC or one of the protestant splinter groups?  I think you have more protestants but with so many flavours the rc would have more adherents than any single group.

    Reason is the enemy of faith.Martin Luther

    • Tom Spademan

       “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and
      thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy
      Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or
      emperor, because reason is the Devil’s greatest whore.”  (from one of his sermons)   What’s odd about that is that Luther appealed to reason repeatedly to establish his own interpretation, although in such a case reason had to “speak clearly.”

  • JoeBuddha

    Reminds me of the “No Coloreds” signs of Jim Crow. Granted, it’s not denying non-Christians access, but it IS telling them that some folx are more equal than others.

  • jedipunk

    Hold on.  I thought the Old Testament wasn’t for Christians.

    This is why I dislike debating theology.  OT is not relevant to christians when debating but once you stop debating they start putting up the 10 commandment and quoting leviticus.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500564877 John Duffee

       It is and it isn’t…  If they got rid of it, there’d be even less with a proper perspective on the events of what’s going on.

      On the other hand, it’d really take the teeth out of the fearmongering fire and brimstone types if all that was left was the parts that you couldn’t get away from being reminded that you’re supposed to like be excellent to one another rather than hate people for being sinners, something that was decried by the big guy himself.

      It’s enough to make someone who actually reads the bible turn atheist out of pure frustration with the church.

  • Gunstargreen

    “I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me”
    But you are bothering them. You’re telling them this country is run by your faith. Why can’t they see that?I’ve reached some kind of anger event horizon. I don’t know how to react to stories like these anymore.

  • Mark Sparrow

    At 11:10 Laura Finlay, Bradford County Coordinator for the National Day of Prayer says: “As we think about the 9/11 incident, how people just really kinda fell to their knees at that time, sometimes I think god allows things like that to happen to call us back to him.  So I pray that we would get right before he has to do something like that again”.

    • Annie

      Mark-  I found her cryptic message after the 17 minute mark the most disturbing.  “I want to commend our commissioners and the people here for allowing us the freedoms that many soldiers have died for, many people have fought for our freedom and we have freedom to do a lot of things that we are not doing. So we need to step up to the plate and know that the things that we used to do are not gone and forgotten, we just have stepped back.  So we need to come, uh, we need to suit up and get out of the AWOL and get back where we need to be, OK?”

      I am trying to determine what she means by “suiting up” to do the things they used to do.  I think I know, but I really hope I am wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500564877 John Duffee

    It’s inappropriate for Christians to memorialize the horrible failed experiment that was the “Law” passed to the Israelites on religious grounds, much less violating the separation between church and state and taking steps to intimidate those who are not Christians with a hard-on for Levitical law.

  • Ruth Shaver

    I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I’d have been right there with you protesting the Constitutional violation. Please know that there are many, many people of faith who absolutely understand and support your efforts to keep the wall of separation in place!

    • Speedy7201

      Shame on you Pastor

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        But God Bless you nonetheless.

      • http://www.facebook.com/awol2010 Clay Anthony Koehler

        No Speedy7201, shame on you for supporting a violation of the constitution

    • http://www.facebook.com/awol2010 Clay Anthony Koehler

      Pastor Ruth Shaver, thank you for your support. I am glad that some christians also see the blatant violation the seperation of church and state.

  • Speedy7201

    God Bless Starke, God Bless the Ten Commandments, God Bless all of those who attended the protest, God Bless America and God Bless our Troops….Also, God, Bless the Athiest…

  • http://www.facebook.com/tinas.husband.5 Tinas Husband

    it’s a court house, not a church. It has no business there. It’s a water tower not a crucifix. same thing. want to spread your message? want church where you pay your taxes then how about taxes where you church? U allow this for christians then we will have muslim crap all over the place, no thanks!


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