A city bench that insulted atheists will finally be removed and replaced with one that honors all veterans, regardless of their religious views.
The controversy began last month when a resident of Oil City, Pennsylvania noticed the problematic bench in Justus Park. The front of the bench — where your back would be if you were sitting on it — included a religious message: “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God, Will Be Governed By Tyrants.”
Really? Our only options are God or tyranny? What an insult that is to sensible people everywhere. (And don’t forget: the vast majority of evangelical Christians, exit polls showed, supported Donald Trump in the election.) More to the point, though, this bench was both a slap in the face to atheist veterans and government promotion of religion, breaking the very laws our veterans fought to uphold.
The American Atheists Legal Center sent a letter to Mayor William P. Moon, Jr. in early November noting that, while the bench had been around since 2003, that wasn’t an excuse to allow it to remain there.
After receiving the complaint, American Atheists obtained pictures of the entire VFW Memorial and understands the intent of the obelisk and two benches is to honor those who have served and died overseas. However, the Tyrants Bench contains an overtly religious message which endorses one particular religious viewpoint: Christianity. The statement that “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God, Will Be Governed By Tyrants” not only has absolutely nothing to do with honoring our service members but is derisive toward the all non-Christian American service members who have served and died for this country.
American Atheists offered a way to replace the bench at no cost to taxpayers:
If Oil City agrees to remove the Tyrants Bench, American Atheists is willing to donate a new bench to replace the Tyrants Bench that would be the same as the second bench in the VFW Memorial, except it would have a message that honors all of the brave men and women who have fought for the United States. We are willing to work with VFW Post 464 to find a mutually agreeable quote and, so long as the quote is approved by American Atheists, our organization will pay the costs incurred in constructing the new bench and installing it in place of the Tyrants Bench.
Last week, we heard that the city had no intention of replying at all. They felt the bench was perfectly fine as is:
[Mayor] Moon asked VFW Commander Jason Reed for a reply because it is a VFW memorial and donated by the local post. He asked the post to decide what it wants to do.
The post didn’t take long to decide and voted unanimously late last week to reject the request.
“I wanted to get this out to everybody when I saw the letter; it’s absolutely insane,” said Reed. “They said we had five days to respond, but then what? They quoted some legal cases, but I have other cases, too. If it goes anywhere, a judge is not going to take that away. If they want to go the legal way, I am talking to attorneys about any legal right they have to come in here and make us do this.”
That attitude could have cost the city quite a bit of money in a lawsuit since the law isn’t on their side. I guess they finally realized that, too, since they changed their minds on the “not replying” thing rather quickly.
Last night, the City Council announced that they had voted to remove the bench.
Oil City Councilman Isaiah Dunham says the new bench will be inscribed with wording that represents veterans.
“We aren’t disrespecting our vets,” said Dunham. “We are getting a new bench that will have a secular quote on it.”
Dunham says the current bench will be moved to the VFW after the new bench arrives.
To be clear, the “secular” quote won’t be a pro-atheist message (even though American Atheists will help select it). It’ll be inclusive, unlike the current option.
There’s no timetable for when this transition will happen.
I would take issue with one thing, though: The mayor’s characterization of American Atheists is wildly off the mark:
“With our financial status, we decided we wouldn’t have the means to handle it legally, and it would probably have to go to the Supreme Court. I did get something from the Venango County Tea Party today offering contact information for free counsel to battle this.”
Moon said he would ask the solicitor for a review of the information and/or support.
Noting a similar request in Franklin, Mayor Moon speculated that these types of groups come into depressed communities with demands, and there is no money in the communities.
“They just give in,” said Moon.
Trump would be proud of that lie.
No atheist group with a legal department goes into poor communities looking to pick a fight. I know because I’ve spoken with several of them and I know how they operate. They don’t tackle these issues to turn a profit.
When someone in these communities tells them there’s a church/state separation problem, they look and the problem and determine if the law is on their side. If it is, they’ll try to settle the issue through a polite letter. It’s only when government officials insist on promoting religion that a lawsuit is filed, and even then, a victory usually covers the legal bills and nothing more.
Atheists didn’t go after Oil City because it’s poor. They did it because Oil City is violating the law, and officials there refused to fix the problem until the threat of a lawsuit was hanging over their heads.
They had the option of obtaining free legal counsel. But guess what? Someone must have informed them that they still would have lost the case. That’s why they agreed to the change.
If you don’t want to deal with a lawsuit, don’t break the law. It’s just that simple.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Ryan S. and Andy for the link. Portions of this article were published earlier)