STARKE — Church steeples along roads and a Ten Commandments monument at the courthouse were among the most apparent religious symbols of Starke — until Saturday afternoon, that is.
That’s when another symbol joined the predominantly Baptist town 30 miles northeast of Gainesville: the first atheist-sponsored monument erected on government property in the U.S., according to the American Atheists group.
Under cloudy skies, about 300 people pressed in front of the Bradford County Courthouse to witness the unveiling of the monument: a four-foot-tall granite pillar with a bench attached bearing inscriptions of quotes from famous atheists.
Although Bradford County Commissioner Danny Riddick, who opened the ceremony, didn’t specifically express approval of the monument, he emphasized the opportunity to ask questions.
“By having both monuments side by side, I hope [visitors can] search [the] context of both and find their true meanings,” he said. “This is the most important decision a person can make: ‘What to do with God?’”
When Riddick read a Bible verse that included “serve the Lord,” someone in the crowd yelled, “serve nobody!”
The clash of ideas first came to light in Starke when New Jersey-based nonprofit American Atheists, along with a local resident, sued the county in 2005 for a lighted cross that used to perch on top of a water tower. It was removed in 2007.
Then, in 2012, a local Christian men’s group paid about $20,000 to install the Ten Commandments monument at the courthouse, according to American Atheists.
It caught the attention of the group and sparked a lawsuit, which led to a series of negotiations with Bradford County government, which ended in the agreement to erect a second monument presenting an alternative viewpoint.
For many, the monument is an issue of regional identity.
With a Southern cross flag in hand, 20-year-old Marshall Rawson said the new monument is disrespectful to the region’s heritage because it is “imposing Northern ideas” — such as a broader definition of morality — on an area that may not be rooted in the same values. He explained how the flag he held was the type flown over the capitol post-Civil War during Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
“Our push is to preserve our Southern heritage,” he said. “Every nation should have a cultural identity.”
However, Bridget Gaudette, a local activist and a director for Foundation Beyond Belief who also spoke during the ceremony, said the monument does represent the ideals of a segment of the local population.
She said the willingness of American Atheists to draw attention to the Starke courthouse helped other local atheists who had been quiet about their beliefs to organize.
“With the weight of a national organization behind them, they were more willing to step forward,” she said.
Daniel Cooney, who filed the lawsuit against the courthouse, was one. He stepped up to the lectern wearing a camouflage ball cap and cargo shirt with the sleeves rolled up. When Cooney wanted to combat the Ten Commandments monument, he lacked the resources to speak up on his own, so he said he had to “find...a friend with a big stick.” He found that friend in American Atheists.
The speeches during the dedication ceremony were punctuated by blasts from semi truck horns.
That’s because Patti Hinds, the owner of two businesses that share office space opposite the courthouse, stood across the street with a group of about 10 people holding signs made of file folders that said “Honk for Jesus,” written in marker.
Gospel music blared from the stereo of a green Chevy Silverado parked on the curb.
Although Hinds said she thought it important to protest, she said the new monument probably won’t have a lasting impact.
“I think it’s just people kicking and screaming,” she said.
President of American Atheists Dave Silverman closed the ceremony, saying the historic code is the definition of hate speech because it invokes violence on those who don’t follow it. He then condemned the penalties associated with breaking the Ten Commandments. The atheist monument, he said, represents ideals without underlying threats.
And then someone pulled the red cloth from the monument.
As people crowded around the monument to take photos, Canadian evangelist Sye Ten Bruggencate climbed on top of the bench. He set down a plastic toilet seat and a roll of toilet paper and declared the monument was complete.
Spurred on by an angry crowd, a bystander hurled the roll of toilet paper away and also tried to snatch the toilet seat. Ten Bruggencate climbed down and tucked the toilet seat under his arm.
“I think we have to engage people rationally,” he said. “It was a joke, but it exposed their intolerance.”
Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith, who attended the ceremony out of uniform, said he didn’t recognize any of the outspoken evangelicals at the event. Most, he said, had already come to terms with the monument and allowed it to be unveiled peacefully.
After Ten Bruggencate stood on the monument, the bench began sliding out of place. A deputy roped off a small area surrounding it with yellow crime-scene tape and orange traffic cones. Smith said the accident happened because the grout holding the monument together hadn’t fully hardened.
“This thing started sliding, and I said ‘Oh, Lord,’” he said with a chuckle.
Although American Atheists asserted it will continue to erect similar monuments across the country, the Rev. Les Singleton, of Micanopy, said he thinks the situation in Starke was handled with a good compromise.
“It’s probably a satisfactory resolution to put something alongside instead of removing,” he said.
But he said the Starke monument will have limited impact.
“I’d be surprised if it’s more than a blip in the news,” he said. “I think it’s a hiccup.”
Contact Kelcee Griffis at [email protected].