A Seat for Atheists in Bradford County; Debate over Separate of Church and State Gets Concrete

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Byline: Kate Howard Perry

STARKE | For the first time, a monument dedicated to the separation of church and state will sit alongside the Ten Commandments on a public space.

While battles over religious displays on government land are nothing new, a compromise playing out in Starke doesn't seem to make anyone completely happy: not the atheists, who still want to see the Bible monument taken down, and not the Christians, who will now have quotes about the separation of church and state a few feet from their granite stone.

On June 29, the American Atheists will unveil a bench outside the Bradford County Courthouse engraved with quotes from the likes of presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The inside of the bench will read as follows: "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion," from the Treaty of Tripoli signed by Adams in 1797.

Likely more controversial: the portion that will list the punishments ascribed by the Old Testament for breaking each commandment, which most often was death.

"When you read our monument and look at its messages, I think overall they are more American and more rooted in what America stands for than the Ten Commandments monument," said Todd Stiefel of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which paid for the $6,000 monument. "The Ten Commandments is directly in conflict with the American Constitution. Worshiping other gods is punishable by death via stoning from your neighbors? Well, the U.S. Constitution gives us freedom of speech and freedom of religion."

The county manager and county commissioners referred questions to their attorney, Terry Brown, who didn't return calls.

Ken Weaver, a member of Community Men's Fellowship, which placed the Ten Commandments monument paid for with private donations, said he suspects their monument will be more of a protest than a statement of beliefs. But their speech is also protected, he said.

"Personally, I prefer it wasn't there, but they have as much right to put their monument there as we do," Weaver said.

The Rev. Justin Kirksey, senior pastor at Madison Street Baptist Church in Starke, said he wasn't involved in placing the monument but he supports it. He thinks including punishments for the laws of the Old Testament misses a major point about Christianity - God took that judgment for us through the death of Jesus, he said - and he believes the founders never intended to offer freedom from religion.

The atheists' monument could also bring a ministerial opportunity, he said.

"I'm hoping and praying that this will cause a dialogue to rise up where Christians can explain our hope in Jesus Christ to people who don't currently believe in him," Kirksey said.

NOT FIRST SPEECH BATTLE IN BRADFORD COUNTY

The American Atheists and Bradford County residents have met each other in the courtroom before. …