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 — and everyone who gives a damn about the Constitution, since this was clearly government promotion of religion, breaking the very laws our vets 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 to replace the bench, at no cost to taxpayers, with a more inclusive message that both sides would find “mutually agreeable.”
Or they could duke it out in court.
City officials weren’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 announced in December that they had voted to remove the bench from the park. It would be given back to the VFW and a new one (not the one offered by atheists) would be put in its place.
I thought that put an end to the controversy… except the bench was never removed. It’s like everyone there hoped the atheists would just forget about it. So American Atheists sent one more warning letter in April saying they planned to sue if the bench wasn’t gone by May 3.
And check out what happened. City officials realized they were on the losing side of this argument.
“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.”
Eventually, the Oil City Council voted to remove the bench and give it back to the VFW — along with another bench and monument that the VFW had also donated.
That transaction has finally taken place. And last night, the VFW held a re-dedication ceremony that included speeches criticizing the atheists for what they had done.
VFW Commander Jason Reed told the gathering, “The problem we’re solving today is the effect of the negative influence of persons who demand respect for their beliefs, but are not willing to do so toward others.”
“I don’t think [the city] studied it nearly like they should,” Venango County GOP chairwoman Martha Breene said. “They didn’t study it like they should have, I know they didn’t.”
That’s a lot of ignorance for one event. (Side note: The quote attributed to Reed seems to be coming from State Representative Lee James in the video above.)
Atheists were asking for a bench that respect all veterans, not just ones who believed in the Christian God. I have no clue how that can be interpreted as disrespectful toward others.
And city officials absolutely studied their options. They knew damn well that if this matter went before a judge, the law was firmly on the atheists’ side. Why fight a battle you’re going to lose, and that would cost you quite a bit in legal fees, when you can just admit defeat right away and protect the taxpayers?
The city did the right thing. Eventually. They also have a chance now to put up a bench honoring all veterans instead of insulting atheists who have fought for this country.
(Screenshot via CBS Pittsburgh. Thanks to Ryan for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)