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By Religion News Service with BJC Staff Reports

Religious displays have been the focus of recent court cases and disputes across the country, including two vastly different proposals struck down in California and Florida.

On Feb. 27, a California federal judge rejected a proposed Christian memorial at a publicly owned baseball stadium as a violation of both federal and state laws.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson of California’s Central District ruled that a granite monument depicting a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross lacked “a secular purpose” and has “the unconstitutional effect” of endorsing religion over nonreligion.

The decision came nine months after a lawsuit was filed by the American Humanist Association, a national organization of nonbelievers. The memorial was planned for city property in Lake Elsinore, Calif., a community of about 53,000 people in Southern California’s Riverside County.

The monument was designed in 2012 by a 22-member committee appointed by Lake Elsinore’s City Council and included its mayor, members of a local veterans group and a representative of the city’s minor league baseball team, the Storm.

When the design was presented to the City Council for review, some residents objected to the memorial’s religious nature. Members of the City Council spoke in support of it, specifically citing its Christian nature as suitable for public property.

Councilwoman Melissa Melendez, a veteran, cited America as “a Christian nation” and proposed the city go ahead with the memorial to test its legality.
“I think at some point you have to take a stand,” she said, according to court documents. Melendez is no longer on the council.

David Niose, director of AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, supported the judge’s decision, which is open to appeal.

“I hope that if members of the city council still want to honor veterans, they will move forward with a monument design that represents everyone who fought for our freedoms,” he said in a statement.

In Florida, atheists are battling to establish a monument where another religious-related tribute sits, but their proposal has been denied.

On Feb. 7, Commissioners in Levy County, along the Gulf Coast of Florida, rejected an application filed by local atheists for the placement of a 1,500-pound granite bench adorned with quotes on the courthouse lawn in Bronson.

A Ten Commandments monument is already in place, erected by a local group with county approval. The proposed atheist monument is identical to one placed last year at another courthouse in Starke, Fla., after it, too, was initially rejected.

In this case, county commissioners rejected the monument because its engraved quotes — from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, were “incomplete,” according to the commission’s report.

“None of the texts on the proposed monument appear to be a reproduction of the entire text of any document or person, as required in the (county) guidelines,” the report states.

Charles Ray Sparrow, a member of Williston Atheists, a group of about a dozen nonbelievers that applied for the monument in January, said such objections were not raised for the Ten Commandments monument.

“It is just an excuse,” he said. “We will not give up.”

Sparrow said his group, established a few months ago, has contacted the national office of American Atheists to help plan their next step.

Fred Moody, Levy County coordinator, did not respond to requests for comment.

American Atheists erected the first monument to atheism on public land last June outside the Bradford County Courthouse, about 50 miles northeast of Bronson.

The New Jersey-based organization has funding in place, raised from private donors, to erect additional monuments as their applications are approved.

Since the erection of the Bradford County monument, other religious minorities have sought monuments attesting to their beliefs on public land. In December, the New York-based Satanic Temple proposed a statue of a horned god on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. Additionally, a group of Hindus proposed a statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Neither has been approved.

But American Atheists President David Silverman is optimistic about the eventual placement of an atheist monument in Levy County.

“It will be up to Levy County whether they want to go to court, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, lose, and get an atheist monument anyway,” he said.

From the March 2014 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.