Atheists Erect A Public Monument

Correction June 30, 2013

This story incorrectly says that American Atheists decided to put up its own display after losing a lawsuit to get the Ten Commandments monument removed from courthouse grounds in Starke, Fla. In fact, the American Atheists did not lose its case; its monument was the result of court-ordered mediation.

The atheist monument being un‎veiled Saturday on county courthouse property in Starke, Fla., is close to another controversial display: the Ten Commandments.

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The first atheist monument to be displayed on U.S. government property will be dedicated today in Starke, Florida. The monument is near a black granite display of the Ten Commandments, which was installed in the courtyard of the Bradford County Courthouse last year.

From member station WJCT, Cyd Hoskinson reports.

CYD HOSKINSON, BYLINE: The Ten Commandments are engraved in white on a six-ton slab of shiny black granite that's been cut to resemble the open pages of a Bible. Bradford County attorney Terry Brown says county commissioners figured there would be a fight if they let the Community Men's Fellowship put the Ten Commandments on public property. So they just decided to create a free speech zone.

TERRY BROWN: Our position was, we were not establishing a religion but rather we had created a venue for freedom of speech, where everybody could express their selves and express their beliefs.

HOSKINSON: The group American Atheists decided to put up their own display after losing a lawsuit to get the Ten Commandments removed. Daniel Cooney was a plaintiff in the case. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The American Atheists did not lose its case; its monument was the result of court-ordered mediation.]

DANIEL COONEY: I just don't see how anybody could walk past that thing on the way to court, you know, if you were Muslim or atheist, and not feel like things were likely not going to go in your favor.

HOSKINSON: Daniel Cooney is an unlikely protagonist. He's a lifelong resident of Starke and also the grandson of Harry Cooney, a member of the Community Men's Fellowship, the group responsible for the Ten Commandments display. The elder Cooney says it bothers him that his grandson protested at the dedication of the Ten Commandments. He says he'll probably go to the dedication of the atheist monument, but just to watch.

HARRY COONEY: They'll not hear no complaints or conversation out of me, no matter what they say. I've been up there. I've looked at their slab and where they're going to set whatever it is; and in comparison to the Ten Commandments, no comparison whatsoever.

HOSKINSON: The atheist monument does, however, have a bench for people to sit on. That concept of functionality is not lost on Bradford County attorney Terry Brown who sees the true value of the monument in terms of redemption.

BROWN: We hope it sort of becomes a tourist attraction, a lot of atheists come in, and maybe we can save a few.

HOSKINSON: The bench of the 1500-pound atheist monument is attached to a four-foot tall obelisk engraved with quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists' founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

For NPR News, I'm Cyd Hoskinson.

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