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Austin Cline

Dixie County Fights to Promote Religion, Theism

By April 21, 2007

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I've written before about Dixie County, Florida, where the local government has allowed a private company to erect a large Ten Commandments monument in front of the county courthouse. Rather than accept that the government has no authority to favor or promote religion and theism like this, the county is going to fight in court.
"Dixie County is not establishing a religion by allowing a private company to place a monument in a location where similarly donated monuments may be placed," said Matt Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel. "The Ten Commandments are universally recognized as symbolic of the law, and are appropriate for display in courthouses and similar settings. Public display of the Commandments is consistent with our nation's history and with the First Amendment. There are more than 50 depictions of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Supreme Court, and there have been thousands of displays throughout the country for many years."

Source: Florida Baptist Witness

There are few legitimate defenses for having a Ten Commandments monument and it's clear that Matt Staver, whose Liberty Counsel will represent Dixie County for free, is choosing one of them: in contexts where various messages are permitted, the government cannot keep out one message simply because it is religious. In general, this is a fair argument. So long as the government has created an open forum where there is no content-based restrictions on the messages which private citizens express, the government cannot arbitrarily shut out religious content and religious messages.

The question which the court will have to answer, then, is whether the location of this Ten Commandments monument really is any sort of public forum. Is there a history of the county government allowing private groups to erect permanent monuments or structures like this in this location? I rather doubt it, which would suggest that this claim is only being made retroactively in order to justify what was done and courts tend to take a dim view of such behavior.

What about going forward? Can the county government and the Liberty Counsel argue that this location is now a "public forum" where private speech is permitted? The would be easy enough to test: a secular, atheist, or humanist group can petition to erect their own monument right next to this one. It should be about the same shape and size but carry a message like "The United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" or "No Gods, No Masters."

If the county government rejects the proposal, that will suggest they are playing favorites and the location is not really a public forum. If the county government accepts the secularist monument, this will outrage those who regard Ten Commandments monuments as a medium for promoting their religion and may thus dissuade them from using arguments like those described above by Matt Staver.

Heather Wellman, Executive Director of the Humanists of Florida Association explains why Ten Commandments monuments like those in Dixie County are so wrong:

In order to walk into the Dixie County Courthouse, one must walk past the large Ten Commandments display. Each person entering the Dixie County Courthouse is confronted with the message that the Ten Commandments are central to the beliefs of those running to the courthouse and that God, not justice will be the ultimate guiding force while in the courthouse. This messaging is an affront to the democratic ideas of the American justice system and sends the message that the tenets and laws laid out in biblical texts can and will usurp the laws established in America.

Even more important than the message the monument sets is the precedent it lays for future action. Imagine prayers before sentencing or collection plates in traffic court. It may seem unfathomable that the United States would adopt a state sanctioned religion, but it is only so unimaginable because the separation of church and state has been diligently protected against small and large infractions.

The citizens of Dixie County Florida deserve to go to a courthouse without the implied endorsement of Judeo-Christian religions. In Floridian courtrooms, the law and justice, not religion, should reign supreme. Each person, regardless of religious preference, should feel comfortable entering the courthouse and should feel as though they will be treated fairly regardless of their faith or lack thereof.

Wellman makes a lot of important points here. Why must people entering a public courthouse on public business be confronted with a message that a particular god is favored by the government? This arguably conflicts with atheists most of all, since they don't believe in any gods, but it also causes problems for various theists as well because not every theist believes in the god associated with the Ten Commandments. Neither atheists nor theists need to be told that the "justice" they will receive is in any way connected to the Ten Commandments.

The problem with "precedent" is also worth considering. People already try to make arguments for greater government endorsement of Christianity and theism on the basis of things like "In God We Trust" on our money, so how much further will they try to take things on the basis of the Ten Commandments? If local governments are given the authority to promote and endorse the Ten Commandments, why not Christianity generally or the resurrection of Jesus in particular?

April 21, 2007 at 4:55 pm
(1) Trevor says:

A new Secular online community. Come and help us change the world.

April 23, 2007 at 12:32 pm
(2) Dean says:

Sometimes it seems that here in America, we are steps away from being a theocracy. Isn’t it ironic that many who support the war against Islamic fundamentalism are similar to those who we fight, in matters of religion and politics.

April 27, 2007 at 11:27 pm
(3) John Hanks says:

This sort of ignorance and bullying works best in a closed society where no other options are possible. If anyone stands up to these clowns that can promote the opposite of their intentions.

April 28, 2007 at 1:14 am
(4) God Isn't says:

This is exactly why we must step up the efforts to get the unconstitutional phrase “In God We Trust” off of our money. It was inevitable that this would be used as justification for further intrusion of religion into our government.

Even christians should support separation of church and state because the religious extremists who want to make America into a christian theocracy see people who adhere to brands of christianity other than their own as not “real” christians, therefore, subject to the same treatment as other “non-christians.”

History is replete with examples of christians killing other christians because they differed in their beliefs. Does anyone, other than these extremists, really want a return of the Dark Ages, and Inquisitions?

April 28, 2007 at 2:47 pm
(5) Chuck says:

It’s amazing how a country this powerful and founded on the wonderful principles set forth in our Constitution can be so superstitious and bigoted against so many. That at times I’m ashamed to call myself an American.


September 11, 2007 at 1:07 pm
(6) Justin says:

Dixie county is where I go hunting. We buy our corn for the deer feeder right by court house. Dixie county used to seem like a small place until the last couple years when the Dairy Queen was put in and then the rest of the development and now this legal drama. It’s still less crowded than Clearwater Florida where I live.

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