The Starke Reality: Atheist is No Longer a Dirty Word

This is an article by Edwin Kagin. It appears in the 4th Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist magazine. American Atheist magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the U.S. and at Chapters Indigo bookstores in Canada. Go to Atheists.org/magazine to see a map of store locations, to subscribe, or to join American Atheists. Members receive free digital subscription.

[Endnotes have been omitted from this article.]

On June 29, 2013, American Atheists accomplished a victory unprecedented in American jurisprudence. With the consent and cooperation of the Commissioners of Bradford County, Florida, we dedicated a monument to Atheism on the county courthouse lawn in the City of Starke. This historic event was made possible by the earlier placement of a six-and-a-half-ton monument emblazoned with the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments in that same courtyard.

In May 2012, when the monument was first erected, a peaceful demonstration was organized by Ken Loukinen, American Atheists’ Director of Regional Operations. One of the participants was Dan Cooney, a resident of Starke and an Atheist. Cooney is hardly the demonstrating type. He is reserved, unassuming, and uninterested in the limelight. But, as he told the crowd at our unveiling a little over a year later, this religious monument on this government property was something he could not ignore.

Dan Cooney (left) and Edwin Kagin sit on the atheist monument in Starke, Florida

“Something like this can make you wonder — and you shouldn’t have to — whether you’re going to walk into this building and get a fair trial,” he told one Florida newspaper. So he put aside his preference to live inconspicuously and joined American Atheists as the named plaintiff in our lawsuit. And by walking out of his comfort zone and into a court room, despite knowing full well that there might be backlash, he changed the world.

The lawsuit was filed on May 24, 2012, in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, Jacksonville Division. Working with me was Tampa attorney and American Atheists member Eric O. Husby. Our complaint was simple. We alleged that the placement of the engraved rock on county property violated both the United States Constitution and the Florida Constitution because it amounted to an unlawful attempt to establish a religion. We asked that the monument be removed.

The defendant in our lawsuit was the Bradford County Commission. They responded by advising the court, under oath, that the rock in controversy was not theirs. They claimed that it had been set up, and would be maintained, by a group called the Community Men’s Fellowship. They also claimed that this religious icon was not religious, but a statement of the principles that underlie our national existence and identity. However, this was, and is, a rendering of Protestant Christians’ understanding of their god’s rules.

The Community Men’s Fellowship then filed a separate lawsuit in the same court as our case against Bradford County. They asked a federal judge to order that the granite stay. They alleged that they owned the six-and-a-half-ton rock and that they, not Bradford County, had placed it on public land by virtue of the area being declared a “free speech zone” or a “public forum.”

This 13-thousand-pound graven image was not, they said — as had others — a religious artifact. We were expected to believe them, even though it memorializes text purporting to have been drafted in the genuine penmanship of a god, it was dedicated in a religious ceremony, and it was prayed over by religious devotees… well… religiously. If this is not religious, then it may well be fair to ask, How would it look if it were religious?

For the purposes of pretrial litigation, the court combined our lawsuit with the lawsuit filed by the Community Men’s Fellowship. Given all of the legal pleadings in this case, it was apparent that to litigate all of the claims and defenses would mean navigating a legal minefield of seemingly unclear or contradictory legal opinions and precedent. Such a process could go on for years in both the trial and appeals courts. We believed our case had the stronger legal support. The other side believed theirs did. When the case was directed to court-ordered mediation, we saw an opportunity to resolve the matter in a groundbreaking and revolutionary way.

It was up to the parties on both sides of this case to agree on a mediator, and they agreed on Alexandra (Sandra) Hedrick. She is an attorney, an honored trial lawyer, a teacher of law, and an experienced and respected federal mediator. She is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. As a kid of a Presbyterian preacher myself, I agreed that she would do nicely.

Everything said in mediation is confidential; the mediator, the lawyers, and the parties are under Federal court order not to reveal the communications that took place. As such, we can never lawfully reveal what was discussed during mediation. What happens in mediation stays in mediation.

What I can say is that when our settlement was reached, it was like a puff of white smoke. The Community Men’s Fellowship and American Atheists would agreed to dismiss their respective lawsuits and American Atheists could erect and dedicate a memorial to Atheism of similar size and placement on the Bradford County Courthouse lawn, just a few feet away from the Ten Commandments. The written agreement is a public record on file with the court.

Our monument to Atheism is a bench carved from granite. On three sides of the rectangular prism that supports the bench are quotes by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, American Atheists’ founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and the 1797 United States Treaty with Tripoli. On the fourth side are Bible quotes enumerating the mandatory punishments for breaking each of the Ten Commandments. The predominant penalty is death. Have you failed to honor the Sabbath? Have you been rude to your parents? Have you graven an image? Well, the Bible has some bad news for you.

On June 29, 2013, more than 200 supporters attended our dedication. They stood in the rain to hear speeches, to cheer, and to know we were all doing something important. About a dozen people who called themselves Florida secessionists quietly stood to one side, waving the Florida secessionist flag and various versions of the Confederate flag. The also brought signs which read, “The South is a Christian Nation,” “Preserve Florida’s Christian Culture,” “If you don’t like our Christian culture, go back home!” and “Florida for Floridians/Yankees Go Home,” to name a few.

Across the street were another handful of people who blared Christian music and held hand-written signs that said, “Jesus,” “God Loves U,” and “Hook for Jeses” [sic].

But Atheists and supporters of church/state separation were the majority that day. In his address to the crowd, American Atheists President David Silverman announced a new, ongoing project. “This is not only the first permanent Atheist-sponsored monument on public land; it’s the first of many. Thanks in part to a generous and anonymous donor, we are embarking on a mission to place 50 monuments on 50 public lawns and walls where religious monuments currently stand. Local Atheist organizations are encouraged to seek out places where the Ten Commandments or other religious propaganda are placed on public land, and American Atheists will work with those local groups to ensure that the truth is placed next to the lie, that civility is placed next to barbarism.”

The John Adams quote we chose for the monument reads, “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [of authoring the Constitution] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven.” This monument ensures that these words will not be forgotten. For many passers-by, this quote will be the first time they learn that our nation was not founded on religious principles. For others, it will be the first time they realize they are not alone in their Atheism. The courage of our plaintiff, Dan Cooney, has already inspired many closeted Atheists to “come out.” The monument, which would not have been possible without his actions, will inspire even more.

The Starke Reality is that “Atheist” is no longer a dirty word.

Edwin Kagin is the National Legal Director for American Atheists.

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.

  • A3Kr0n

    Hook for JeSeS?

    • Randay

      Well, Jesus was said to have hung out with prostitutes. A for Jeses, I think she got it mixed up from watching Mr. Deity on his YT show when he calls his son Jesse. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jYZsIpcVVg

    • # zbowman

      IKR. I couldn’t stop laughing ’cause I read that as ‘Honk For Jesus’ as yelled by the Swedish Chef. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbs64GvGgPU

      • SeekerLancer

        But “Honk for Jesus” would make sense since cars would be driving by. I have no idea what “Hook for Jeses” is supposed to mean.

        • # zbowman

          True. You’d think the followers of a book that goes with ‘stoned to death with stones’ would be bigger on clarifying shit.

        • UWIR

          Perhaps that woman is advertising Jeses’ services as a pimp?

  • JuneAbend

    Captain Hook?

  • Mick

    The Starke Reality is that “Atheist” is no longer a dirty word.
    I’m surprised. Do members of the Community Men’s Fellowship go along with that idea?

  • Atheist Diva

    Gosh, this annoys me. A monument to atheism? How ridiculous. Just everyone leave everyone else alone. Get rid of theirs, but don’t erect ours. Stupid, stupid movement. I hate this.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      If the only way I can make them see how inappropriate their monument is, is to put up my own, I’ll do it. Begrudgingly, but I will.

    • Itarion

      I guess it depends on the content of the quotes. The punishments from the Ten Commandments are rather tasteless, but depending on the Jefferson, Franklin, et al. quotes, it’s not necessarily a monument to Atheism, but rather to our country’s history. Which is entirely more respectful, and rather belongs on public land.

      Edit: or, you know, this:

      It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [of authoring the Constitution] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven.

    • SeekerLancer

      The point is not that anyone wanted an atheist monument. They tried to get their monument on public land removed and the judge’s decision was to make it a free speech zone where anyone could display similar monuments. It was a cop-out.

      American Atheists called them on their bluff and the result is people getting angry about an atheist group receiving equal treatment.

      The ultimate hope is that both monuments will be taken down. If not, then it will continue to stand as a reminder to Christians that they share this country, not own it, and they can be as angry at the monument as we are every time they try to erect one on government property.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Go complain to the ones who started the problem – you know, theists – and come back once they agree to get their crap off the lawn.

  • advancedatheist

    On three sides of the rectangular prism that supports the bench are quotes by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, American Atheists’ founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair

    Sorry, Madalyn doesn’t belong in that company. She might have seemed edgy and radical in the 1960′s, but only because no one else wanted the job of becoming the public face of atheism in the U.S. back then. In that vacuum a mediocre but extroverted figure like Madalyn could gain notoriety. In today’s environment, Madalyn wouldn’t seem nearly as competitive. At best she could rise to the level of one atheist blogger and activist among many.

    I mean, seriously, have you tried to read any of her books? They stay in print because her aging friends at American Atheists bother to keep them on the market through a private command and control economy, not because today’s atheists born in the past 40 years or so want to buy and read them based on her writings’ merits. In another generation or two, we’ll still remember Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams, but Madalyn’s name recognition will decline dramatically, and deservedly so.

    • EdmondWherever

      Her achievements as an author aren’t why she’s honored by atheists. It’s because she was a pioneer. She helped get our ball rolling. It’s BECAUSE she operated in a vacuum that what she did was important. Being that kind of voice ALONE has got to be damned hard. You’re welcome to forget all the people you want who worked hard to help you have a little more freedom and respect today, but like they say, this is only the FIRST atheist monument. You think her name won’t be on the next 10, too?

    • primenumbers

      ” but only because no one else wanted the job of becoming the public face of atheism in the U.S” – sounds like a good enough reason to me, to stand up and say “I’m a godless atheist”.

    • Jasper

      Pfffft… Rosa Parks? Anyone could sit in the front of a bus!

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      You’ve already been well-rebutted regarding your O’Hair complaint, which makes it sound even more ignorant and, well, indicative of a low I.Q.

    • baal

      I’m sure if you were alive today AA, you’d not amount to more than an obnoxious blowhard making comments in atheist blogs. You don’t get to imagine someone in an atypical context for that person (30 years in the future) and posit failure on their part as a result of the context and then impute that failure to the historic person.

      I’m just now imagining you at a party and women turning you down. See, once I start imagining contexts you’d never be at, I can insult you to the nth degree. It’s a lot like making crap up.

  • advancedatheist

    But Atheists and supporters of church/state separation were the majority that day.

    And what does atheism have to do with church/state separation? An atheist could decide based on empirical evidence that some state support of religion serves a useful purpose by helping to keep the low-IQ people in line. A religion’s observable effects on human behavior and well being don’t depend on the religion’s woo-woo claims. For example, the religiously sanctioned diet of the Seventh Day Adventist church turns out to benefit human health, but the Adventists stumbled across that accidentally, not because they got a supernatural revelation about what to eat and what not to eat.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Support of SOCAS is mixed among theists. But the only atheist I’ve ever heard of who doesn’t support SOCAS is S. E. Cupp.

      It’s a correlation only, but I think a pretty damn strong one.

    • EdmondWherever

      Atheism DOESN’T have anything to do with church/state separation, intrinsically. That’s why it says “atheists AND supporters of church/state separation”. The “and” let’s you know that these are two distinct groups.

      • Itarion

        Distinct, but overlapping.

        • EdmondWherever

          Absogoddamnlutely.

        • EdmondWherever

          I don’t support separation of church and slang.

          edit-aw, I wanted that AFTER my slang.

          • Itarion

            Nor do I, I love it when ministers try to be hip. Makes me giggle on the inside. [You'll never catch me giggling on the outside, though, that'd be weird.]

    • baal

      Enlightened self interest. Life’s easier on atheists when the government is secular. Non-secular governments tend to like blasphemy laws. Also, I’m not surprised you think religion is good for keeping the “low-IQ” people in line. I don’t agree that they need to be kept in line.

  • Michael Fulford

    While I was there at the monument I tried to give the pregnant woman in the picture a seat that wasn’t in use. He mother turned me away, apparently I have atheist cooties. Seems we can’t even agree to help each other.

    “If you don’t like our Christian culture, go back home!” and “Florida for Floridians/Yankees Go Home,”

    I actually asked some of those people where I was supposed to go… I am Floridian. Born here, reared here. Where was I supposed to go. Didn’t have an answer for me.

    • SeekerLancer

      It’s just easier for them to handle by defaulting to the Civil War mentality and pretending it’s an attack from outsiders, which isn’t that difficult for them to swallow since it was a national group putting up the monument.

      The thought of atheists living among them in the “good Christian south” isn’t something they want to accept. It’s easier to hate “the other” if “the other” isn’t part of the “culture” they’re trying to irrationally defend like some sort of supremacist group.

  • Gunner Miller

    Every sign in the image has ‘fail’ written on it to some degree. Unneeded capitalization in the right one and an unneeded apostrophe in the middle one, plus a dreaded text version of ‘you’ as the crowning touch for the middle sign. A wonderland of grammar errors.

    • Michael Fulford

      Older lady’s sign says “Jeses.”

      • Gunner Miller

        I understand that, but the other two are also grammatically incorrect.

        • John Gills

          Perhaps that’s the plural form. Thesis – theses. Jesus – Jeses….

    • UWIR

      The word “text” refers to written language. If the word “you” is on a sign, then by definition it is the text version. It would have been clearer if you had called it the “txt”, “IM” or “texting” version of “you”. Also, your usage of the word “fail” is grammatically suspect.

      And maybe God is really fond of the twenty-first letter of the alphabet.

  • chris

    They should have pushed to erect a FSM statue instead.

  • cyb pauli

    Hook for Jeses?

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Because the world needs more rugs.

  • ShoeUnited

    Out of everything in that article, what really bothers me is people who park on the fucking grass.

  • evodevo

    I like the part listing quotes from the “founding fathers” – in stone, where David Barton can’t twist or misquote them. In a small town, EVERYONE goes to the county courthouse one time or another. Having the truth out there where it can be read by the brainwashed populace is an excellent idea. Maybe a few doubts can be sown.


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