A group of atheists descended upon the small town of Starke, Florida to protest the erection of a monument of the Ten Commandments in front of the Bradford County Courthouse.
The $22,000 monument was built through private funding and the sponsorship of businessman Joe Anderson for the community of Starke and dedicated during a National Day of Prayer ceremony. $18,000 of the initial cost was raised by the Interdenominational Community Men’s Fellowship, a local Baptist group led by Harry Hatcher.
Atheists from Tallahassee joined in on the protest.
As a result, a small group of atheists from around the state, led by the Florida chapter of American Atheists director Bridget Gaudette, went to Starke to defend the separation of church and state. "[The importance of the separation of church and state] is extremely important because a lot of the residents I have talked to have used the words, 'we're all Christians' so I think they are under the misconception that us non-theists are not out there and they need to acknowledge us and know that we have a problem with this, and act accordingly," stated Gaudette, who had only assumed the position of state director four weeks prior to the protest. Gaudette said that the monument issue was the first thing to pop up on her radar and she knew she had to seize the opportunity.
Florida state director of American Atheists Bridget Gaudette, right, oversaw the event.
Among the atheist protesters was Rob Curry, the chapter director of the St. Petersburg chapter of Atheists of Florida, who was participating in his first protest even though he had been involved with events that drew theist protesters before. When asked if he was surprised that so many atheists showed up from many parts of Florida, he responded, "We share a common concern, which is a very serious concern. It's not about condemning a religion or criticizing religion, it's about the serious need to protect the American tradition of keeping government neutral in matters of religion."
Christians gathered in prayer circles, singing hymns.
The religious citizens of Starke vastly outnumbered the atheist protesters, forming prayer circles, singing hymns, and waving their bibles at passing cars, soliciting honks from drivers. Among the religious was Todd Foster, an activities director at a nursing home and a pastor of a local church. Foster called the arrival of the atheist protesters as an "invasion of our county, and trying to inflict somebody else's opinion on what we should or should not have."
Starke resident Daniel Cooney and his two sons defended the separation of church and state by showing up to protest the monument.
Even though Bradford County is home to a majority of believers, Daniel Cooney and his two young sons showed up to support the atheists in their quest. "This hit a little too close to home for me," Cooney stated. "I felt I couldn't just sit on my hands." Cooney has agreed to be the plaintiff in the lawsuit to remove the monument when the issue gets taken to court. "I think it was a very meager thing to be asked to do for the greater good," he said.
With the exception of a few heated debates and a couple of boisterous preachers, the protest went without incident. The religious people did not let the difference in belief stop them from providing cold water to the atheists to keep them hydrated in the baking Florida May sun. A couple Starke City police officers observed the demonstration from across the street to ensure the safety of all the protesters involved.
While the filing of a lawsuit is pending, it comes with precedent. In 2006, Dixie County, Florida erected an exact replica of the Bradford County monument and was told to take it down after a federal court stated that the “location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed."