In February of 2014, the Williston Atheists (in Florida) attempted to erect a pro-atheist monument outside the Levy County Courthouse since there was already a Ten Commandments monument on the property.
It wasn’t an outlandish idea. Just a year earlier, American Atheists had installed a bench with atheist quotations outside the Bradford County Courthouse (in northern Florida) to counter a Christian monument in the same area.
But when the Williston group presented their idea to the Levy County Commissioners, the officials voted unanimously to reject the atheists’ proposal, saying the application wasn’t complete. (At the time, the atheists said this was a foregone conclusion before the meeting even started. They were never given a chance to address the concerns, and the reasons for rejection were drawn up before the atheists had even made their formal presentation. That said, an incomplete application is an incomplete application.)
So a couple of months later, that April, they tried again with a proper application. And they were rejected again.
This time, officials told them that the (completely) arbitrary guidelines required all monuments to have the “entire” text on them. So no quotations were allowed. And wouldn’t you know it? The proposed atheist bench was full of quotations…
But that was a strange rule, since the Ten Commandments is essentially a bunch of quotations from a larger text. It’s not like the entire Bible was etched onto that monument. So what was the difference?
… the county attorney says that the ten commandments don’t have to have the whole bible printed… because the supreme court has recognized the commandments as a secular document used on its own.
Even if that were true, it went against the County’s own guidelines:
A monument or display shall include the reproduction of the entire text or image of any document or person(s), or entirety of any item that played a significant role in the development, origins or foundations of American or Florida law, or Levy County…
On that basis, the Ten Commandments had no business there either. There’s no way you could argue that not worshipping false idols, not working on the Sabbath, not taking God’s name in vain, and not having other gods before God have anything to do with our legal system. (While we’re at it, dishonoring your parents, committing adultery, lying to your neighbor, and coveting anything aren’t illegal either.)
It seemed pretty obvious that County officials were doing anything they could to prevent atheists from erecting anything on their property while allowing the Ten Commandments monument to stay in place, even if it meant creating rules that made no sense.
That’s why, in June of 2015, American Atheists and Williston organizer Charles Ray Sparrow filed a federal lawsuit against Levy County, saying that the Ten Commandments monument violated the Establishment Clause.
The Display is religious in nature, has a primary purpose of advancing religion, and is not part of any broader exhibit, historical or otherwise. It stands alone.
If the Christian display could stay up, then they wanted to counter it with one of their own.
The County asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiffs had no legal standing and their claims were “meritless,” but Judge Mark E. Walker gave the lawsuit a green light to proceed in 2016, dismissing the County’s arguments. Walker said if the facts were true, the atheists had something to gain from the lawsuit, and their claims of the monument being unconstitutional were at least plausible. The atheists deserved to be heard.
It’s taken nearly two years, but we finally have a resolution to the case. Unfortunately, it’s not a good one.
Judge Walker dismissed the case this week, saying after all this time that the atheists didn’t have proper legal standing to bring the case forward. He also claimed their complaint was “no paragon of clarity.”
In essence, Walker says that the entire case (including American Atheists’ participation) hinges on the notion that Sparrow is “injured” (legally speaking) by having to see the Christian monument when he visits the courthouse. The problem is that he almost never goes to the courthouse for anything. When he visited there in the past, it was often to see the Ten Commandments memorial for the purposes of his own application and lawsuit. It’s not like he was there to pay traffic tickets or get tags for his car, both of which he said he now does “by mail” anyway.
The record does not even support an inference that Sparrow might have to go to the complex. At the time of Sparrow’s deposition (August 10, 2016), Sparrow had not visited the complex in over two years. The only reason he had visited two years prior was to attend a BOCC hearing about the denial of his monument-placement application. Sparrow cannot even remember when he visited the complex before then.
Despite being a relatively low hurdle to clear, Sparrow has failed to satisfy the “direct and unwelcome personal contact” standard. Sparrow knows he has seen the Monument, but he does not remember when that was… Nor does Sparrow remember why he was at the Levy County complex when he saw the Monument. In fact, Sparrow admitted that he might have gone to the complex for the specific purpose of seeing the Monument.
What about the claim that the monument violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? Even if they had standing, Walker said, the atheists’ application still didn’t meet the County’s guidelines. It’s not like the atheists explained how their own quotations “played a significant role in the development, origins or foundations of American or Florida law, or Levy County.” Walker said there could be a reasonable debate about the Ten Commandments fulfilling that rule, too, but there were other glaring problems with the atheists’ application, including the fact that they didn’t “maintain an office and provide services in Levy County,” which officials required.
There was no reason to think Levy County officials were selectively applying those rules, and the atheists didn’t suggest otherwise.
Walker then threw some shade on the atheists for wasting his time:
… maybe if Plaintiffs try a little harder their next application will be accepted. But it’s doubtful that’s what Plaintiffs really want… Rather, like with their Establishment Clause claim, it seems that the only reason Plaintiffs filed these applications was to hastily manufacture standing. Indeed, when given an opportunity to file their amended application, Plaintiffs chose to argue about the guidelines instead of attempting to comply with them.
When it comes down to it, Walker is dismissing this lawsuit, but he’s not saying the atheists are wrong on the merits. He just doesn’t believe these plaintiffs have met the burden of proof he requires for them to make their case. Other atheists could theoretically bring forth a successful case against the Christian monument.
None of that will stop Christian legal group Liberty Counsel from celebrating a victory.
“We are pleased the court dismissed the suit,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The atheist organization never intended to display its own legitimate monument but rather sought to remove a monument that complies with the public forum guidelines. The Ten Commandments monument is the private speech of the group that placed it in Levy County’s public forum, and even if it were government speech, it is proper to recognize the influence of the Ten Commandments on American law and government,” said Staver.
Staver, as usual, is distorting the facts. Yes, the court dismissed the suit, but it’s not because the Ten Commandments influenced American jurisprudence. It’s because the County’s guidelines, even though they were ostensibly fair to everybody, favored a Christian monument while creating a difficult burden for everybody else. It’s a public forum that Christians can take advantage of. Officials never said that, of course, but that’s what it was in practice. And in this situation, the atheists couldn’t prove that the officials were discriminating against them, nor could they show they were actively harmed by the Christian monument in place.
***Update***: American Atheists’ National Program Director Nick Fish told me in a statement that the group is considering appealing the decision:
We’re disappointed that the court opted to dismiss this case on standing grounds and not address the merits of the issue.
Levy County permitted a Christian group to erect a massive 10 Commandments display on public land and put in place requirements that effectively prevent any other display from being erected alongside it. The 10 Commandments display itself does not even meet the county’s requirements, yet the display remains. Those are the facts. We remain determined to fight against any attempt to give special status to one particular religion and these 10 Commandment monuments do just that. We are examining our options to move forward and will announce a decision shortly.