‘Freethinkers’ want anti-religious belief posted in courthouses

Friday, February 13, 1998

Efforts to place copies of the Ten Commandments in Indiana government buildings have spurred a national group of “freethinkers” to mount a campaign to force the counties to remove the religious rules.

Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Wisconsin-based legal and educational group, sent a letter to all 92 Indiana counties warning commissioners that if “they succumb to pressure tactics to turn courthouses into advertisements for one religion’s teachings, then on behalf of our Indiana membership, we will pursue a campaign to erect our own freethought monument of similar prominence in those courthouses.”

The freethought monument the group proposes reads: “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth or superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the group’s Freethought Today, told the First Amendment Center that so far none of the counties has agreed to display the statement and that the only alternative may be to file a legal action.

The group’s letter campaign was prompted by the actions of the Christian Family Association of Indiana and Ohio, which had proposed hanging the Ten Commandments in all of Indiana’s county courthouses.

Late last year, commissioners in Grant, Hendricks and Morgan counties voted to post the Ten Commandments. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed federal lawsuits against all three counties. In December, the ICLU settled its suit with the Grant County commission after the county agreed to post other historical documents along with the commandments.

Gaylor, however, said the settlement with the Grant County commission still raises constitutional problems.

“It is a falsity to suggest that the Ten Commandments had anything to with the founding of this country,” Gaylor said.

“The government cannot get into promoting religious beliefs. It cannot tell people that they should have no other god before them as the First Commandment does. It is completely un-American for government agencies to force a brand of religion on its citizens.”

Grant County Commissioner Dave Glickfield told The Indianapolis Star that placement of the religious rules in the county courthouse, along with other historical documents like a copy of the Magna Carta, does not subvert the separation of church and state.

“There is a historical context for this,” Glickfield said. “We are not telling them that they have to believe or not believe. We’re not going to arrest anyone for not believing.”

Douglas Laycock, law professor at University of Texas and a religious liberty scholar, said the Freedom From Religion Foundation will have a difficult time getting its statement posted in Indiana courthouses.

“I think if the government displays an array of statements of beliefs and ideals, then it would be discriminatory to reject religious statements, like the Ten Commandments,” Laycock told the FAC.

“However, I don’t think the group will win on asking county commissioners to post an attack on religion.”