The atheists working to put a Clarence Darrow statue outside the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee are receiving a number of subtle and not-so-subtle threats from a Christian activist on Facebook.
So I gave her a call.
More on that in a moment.
A little background is helpful first. The Rhea County courthouse is famous for hosting the legendary Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, in which substitute teacher John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution, which was illegal in that state at the time. He was found guilty and fined $100.
The two prominent lawyers in the trial were William Jennings Bryan, arguing against evolution for the state, and Darrow, who represented Scopes. (Their debate was wonderfully depicted in the film Inherit the Wind.)
Outside the courthouse today stands this statue of Bryan, which went up in 2005:
But a couple of years ago, there was a push for the courthouse to include a similar statue of Darrow:
“Back in 2005, we knew that if the topic ever arose, we’d have to consider adding a Darrow monument as well or else risk be shown in a negative or biased light,” Rhea County Historical Society President Tom Davis said. “We don’t want to stir up controversy or continue the battle from the 1920’s, but rather just recognize it as a major part of our history. I think it will be a unique feature for Dayton and a good idea to have both Jennings and Bryan [sic] represented.”
“I would really like to create a sculpture of Clarence Darrow for Dayton’s courthouse,” [sculptor Zenos] Frudakis said. “It would be fun and his sculptural presence would bring a nice balance to the Dayton, Tenn., experience for visitors wanting to know more about the famous Scopes Trial.”
But things began heating up last month because some citizens couldn’t handle hearing the “other side” of the story. One local news article featured 78-year-old June Griffin, a Christian activist in the area.
Long time activist, June Griffin tells us she’s one of many taking a stand against the proposed statue of Clarence Darrow. She says the lawyer ideas about evolution go against everything she and others who live in the tight-knit community believe.
“All history proves the existence of God and Evolution is a joke for any thinking person,” said Griffin. “This is a very serious matter, the courthouse is a sacred place, you don’t turn it into a theater.”
Many residents are upset because there was never an official vote.
“Well I know, God is real and he’s not pleased with this,” said Griffin. “You can come in here with all kinds of French opinions of this, that and the other but this is not France and we don’t run on opinions and an atheist is not on an equal footing with the Christian.”
“The opposition is centered on the effect of Darrow’s ideas [and our] purpose is not promoting his ideas or anything of that nature… it’s just a recognition of the man and his historical significance,” said Green.
June Griffin says she and others will continue to stand up for their beliefs.
“You (commissioners) have betrayed the people of this county, you have betrayed them,” said Griffin. “There are people that live on the outskirts and they don’t make appointments with Channel 3, they just do things and I’ve heard talk of ‘well there’s always spray paint.’“
There’s your godly reaction to the statue of Darrow: Evolution is a joke, this ain’t France, and we’re gonna vandalize that piece of art. (Tell me again about Christian persecution…?)
Incidentally, the Commission didn’t have an “official vote” for the Bryan statue, either.
That said, the County Commission seems to be doing everything right. They’re treating the Darrow statue the same way they did the Bryan one, and they’re not getting in the way of its installation. They believe having the two figures on the courthouse lawn is a way of honoring their history. It’s not “taking sides” on a religious matter to them — or even promoting science (as if that’s such a bad thing).
But Griffin has gotten only more violent in her rhetoric. It doesn’t help that this is the profile picture for her Facebook page “Tennessee for the Ten Commandments”:
The posts on her personal page weren’t any better. I know a lot of it sounds like crazy Christian babble, but there are very real threats being made.
… You will get a nice surprise when you dare to step on sacred grounds of OUR Courthouse… You come with your high-minded corruption and your boasted freedom but you will be brought to nothing when we get through with you… Our God will bring upon your worst fear. This is not a threat — it is a Promise. Psalm 149. from a Christian saint. June Griffin. For God and Country.
Psalm 149, by the way, calls on God’s faithful to destroy His enemies.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters [chains],
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them —
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Other posts were no less freaky:
“No lawyers,” she said, “only personal confrontation. Engage them in the debate right there.”
If not that, she said, the humanists should have to defend themselves in court, without lawyers, who she says feed on taxpayer money and have no concern for people’s rights.
And barring that, Griffin suggests the association form its own militia.
“If worst comes to worst, I will challenge them to meet us in their uniforms at King’s Mountain, just like John Sevier did, and we’ll settle it over there,” Griffin said. During the American Revolutionary War, Sevier led patriots to battle against loyalist militias in South Carolina.
As I was looking into all this, I came across June Griffin’s phone number. She doesn’t keep it a secret, so I gave her a call this afternoon to see if she would tell me what she meant by her statements.
Over the course of nearly 30 minutes, she refused to say that violence was out of the question.
When I asked her point blank if she planned to bring weapons to the July 14 unveiling, she responded, “It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you.”
Griffin explained that she had every intention of putting a “stop to their invasion of our courthouse,” suggesting as she did to a local reporter that the Darrow statue would turn the courthouse into theater. When I said that a legal challenge from the atheists was far different from the violent threats she was making against them, she told me it was “violent” of the atheists to “rob our taxes.”
How were they robbing her taxes?
Because, she argued, if atheists sue the county for rejecting their statue, and the county fights them and loses in court, the county will be on the hook for the other side’s legal bills. That means the commissioners will eventually raise property taxes on citizens to make up for the financial loss. Therefore, the threat of a lawsuit was no different from her own threats. She was fighting fire with fire.
I told her those weren’t fair comparisons. After all, even if you lost a lawsuit, you still had your life.
Not true, she said, adding, “Is it worse to die or be sued?” (She repeatedly referenced Patrick Henry‘s famous line, “Give me liberty or give me death.”)
I told her it was worse to die. She laughed it off. And then I asked her again: Was she bringing weapons to the unveiling?
“Let them find out.”
I told her the atheists were worried about her.
“Why are they afraid?”
Because they think you’re going to shoot them, I said. I asked why she even had a picture of herself holding a gun for a Facebook page about the Ten Commandments. Wasn’t that hypocritical? She explained that, to her, the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence were all one and the same. And all the people she was fighting against — the American Humanist Association, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and their lawyers — didn’t recognize the Bill of Rights. They cared about the First Amendment and nothing else.
That’s why advocating for her Second Amendment rights wasn’t out of place at all, she told me.
Okay… but was she going to shoot atheists?
“I’m like George Washington. I don’t make plans. When the time comes, we’ll see what happens.”
I told her she might be saying something different if atheists used the same words against her. If they were threatening her with violence, wouldn’t she have a problem with it? Nope. She said God would protect her “against these wicked ungodly atheists” who are coming to her community and scaring the commissioners.
She also said the atheists had Second Amendment rights as well, as if she was perfectly fine with everyone bringing guns to the unveiling of the Darrow statue.
I said I doubted the atheists had any intention of bringing weapons to the event.
She didn’t care. The atheists, she said, were more afraid of losing their 501(c)(3) statuses than facing a militia. Whatever that meant.
At one point, we discussed why the Darrow statue was so problematic for her. It all went back to his advocacy of evolution, she claimed. Evolution “leads to students becoming atheists… They don’t know there’s a God… What do they do? They blow their brains out the first time their boyfriends get mad at them.” The boys who killed their classmates at Columbine High School, she insisted, also believed in evolution. And Hitler.
“We won the trial,” she told me, referring to the Scopes verdict. “We won it. And the Bible won. And people had enough faith then.” But this new religious war was going to “culminate right here.”
What did she mean by that?
“These people are atheistic communists… They will lose.”
I tried again. Was she going to commit an act of violence against the atheists when they came into town? Because they’re seriously worried about that.
“Let ’em worry. I don’t care if they worry. I hope they can’t sleep at night.”
I don’t think sleep is the problem, I told her. They just want to know what she plans to do.
“I am not gonna tell you what I’m gonna do. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to do. But it’ll be revealed at the last minute.”
So… that was our conversation. And it all stems from a donated statue honoring a lawyer who defended science education that will go up in front of the courthouse he helped make famous.
Griffin is only one person, yes, but it’s one person who is making her intentions known on Facebook in anticipation of a rally featuring her so-called enemies. She threatens atheists with violence, won’t definitively say that shooting them is out of the question, and wants to make their lives miserable.
Atheists who are organizing the July event have already been in touch with local authorities in addition to the FBI. But no action has been taken against Griffin just yet.
***Update*** (2:27p): Pastor Dale Walker, President of the Tennessee Pastors’ Network, is sponsoring the July 1 rally that Griffin is promoting. I asked him what he thought about her comments and he told me he felt I was “reading a lot into Ms. Griffin’s statements.”
When I told him about my phone conversation — and her refusal to just say no to acts of violence — he said, “She’s not a violent woman. She never has been a violent woman. That’s not who she is.” She might “run her mouth until Jesus comes,” but she’s not the kind of person who would resort to violence.
He also suggested that she may have thought my questions were dumb, so she was being sarcastic with her responses.
I didn’t get a sense of that sarcasm when I spoke to her, so I asked Walker if he would still sponsor her event.
“If she made a bold threat, no, I would not join her in that. But to my knowledge, she has not made a bold threat.”
I also called the two legislators who plan to speak at the same event. Neither was in the office, but I’ll report if and when I hear back.
(Top image via brent_nashville on Flickr. Thanks to Brian for the link. Portions of this article were published earlier)