For more than a decade, Justus Park in Oil City, Pennsylvania was home to a bench honoring veterans that read “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God, Will Be Governed By Tyrants.”
As if our only options were God or tyranny.
It was a slap in the face to atheist veterans, not to mention an example of government promotion of religion, breaking the very laws our veterans fought to uphold.
Last November, the American Atheists Legal Center sent a letter to Mayor William P. Moon, Jr. 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.
The city wasn’t going to respond at first. 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 is so obviously not on their side. I guess they finally realized that, too, since they all changed their minds on the “not replying” thing rather quickly.
The City Council soon announced that they had voted to remove the bench from the park.
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.
Well, it wasn’t the atheist bench that was offered, but it was better than the alternative. And it honored all veterans regardless of their religious views.
Everything was settled, right?
That’s what I thought… but the bench was never removed. The controversy died down, but the promised resolution never transpired. So American Atheists sent one more warning letter saying they planned to sue if the bench wasn’t gone by May 3.
“From an administration standpoint, this is heading toward litigation,” City manager Mark Schroyer said. “At that point, we have to decide what are our wins, losses, and gain. What is the solicitor telling us after consultation with other legal experts? Our position is very poor from a legal standpoint. Our collective opinion is — if it’s winnable, it would be so costly what would we actually be gaining other than taking the stand our residents are asking?”
“I find it very disappointing that someone raised this issue, and here we are,” Councilman Ronald Gustafson said. “It’s a huge financial risk to the city. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I don’t feel it (the case) is winnable as to how it relates to the inscription. I can’t see how it relates to honoring vets, but it can be perceived to be demeaning to certain people of a certain belief. Freedom of religion means we all have a right to our beliefs. It’s a shame that something that’s been there for 13 years has fallen into our laps, but as a government, it’s our responsibility to see all sides. I don’t see how that particular engraving can be defended as a freedom of speech. It is, but it’s also stating a pretty strong religious opinion.”
They can whine all they want. But they knew they were on the losing side of the issue and the pressure from American Atheists worked. That bench is going away.
After a lengthy discussion between the Oil City Council and the public present at Thursday’s council meeting, council voted unanimously to remove the “Tyrants Bench” from Justus Park and return it, another bench, and a memorial back to the Oil City VFW as per the VFW’s wishes if the bench was going to be removed.
The council doesn’t know what the old bench will be replaced with, but that’s their own damn fault. They were foolish enough to accept the VFW’s donation, they were foolish enough to reject American Atheists’ proposal, and they’re foolish enough to wait until the last second to give away the bench without having a replacement ready to go.
Oh well. The veterans deserve to be recognized and this city has no clue how to do it properly. Maybe they’ll figure it out eventually.
***Edit***: The VFW will be receiving not only the bench, but another bench and monument that it also donated.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Ryan S.. Large portions of this article were published earlier)