tampabay.com

It's a battle not written in stone

By SHERRI DAY
Published January 3, 2007


CROSS CITY - To government officials, it was a simple request: A local business owner wanted to donate a monument of the Ten Commandments and place it on the steps of the Dixie County Courthouse.

The commissioners, all professed Christians, approved the gift and its placement outside the building in the center of town that is home to several government agencies, including the County Commission.

The monument, a chunk of black granite, went up after Thanksgiving. It stands more than 5 feet tall, weighs 6 tons and cost $20,000.

Word about the rock spread, all the way to Gainesville, leading atheists and agnostics there to contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They are threatening a lawsuit if the commission doesn't reverse itself and remove the monument.

There's just one problem: the foundation can't find anyone in this rural county of roughly 14,000 residents to participate in the proposed lawsuit.

Locals are unlikely to back the foundation's efforts, confirmed Shelly Cannon, who works in the courthouse.

"Mostly our big flak has been from people in big cities," Cannon said. "One guy from Tallahassee came all the way down here to tell every office that he supported it. You're going to have some non-Christians, but if people practiced it, the world would be a better place."

All the posturing on both sides has made Dixie County the latest battleground in the debate over the separation of church and state.

News crews from across the country have taken notice. In late November, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes featured a debate between the county's former attorney and a University of Florida atheist. National newspapers, including the Washington Post, have called townspeople for interviews. Supporters from all over the country, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C., have phoned to encourage the commissioners, commission secretaries said.

The Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest law firm in Michigan that advocates for the religious freedom of Christians, offered to defend the commission for free if the matter winds up in court.

Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who was booted from the bench in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse rotunda, also has offered support.

He said the Dixie County conflict is much more than a Florida dispute.

"Do we take 'In God We Trust' from our money?" Moore asked. "Do we take our 'under God' from our pledge? It's about the removal of the acknowledgement of a supreme being, the Judeo-Christian God from which this nation was based, and I say 'No, we can't do that. It's wrong and it's harmful to do that.' "

Residents not keen on outsiders' opinions

The fight - if it can be called that - clearly favors the insiders. Situated about 50 miles west of Gainesville, Dixie County has about 14,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It has four traffic lights, and its primary employers are timber companies and corrections facilities. There are at least 20 churches. On Sundays, locally owned restaurants and liquor stores close up shop.

Residents don't take kindly to outsiders telling them what to do.

"I'm a devout Florida State fan," said Hoyt "Buddy" Lamb, a county commissioner and faithful Baptist. "When I go to Gainesville, I see this Gator logo displayed on the street corners and all. But I hadn't went over there and said, 'That offends me. I want them removed because I'm a devout Seminole fan.' I don't think it's my business to go over there and tell them to do that any more than it is their business to come here and tell us what to do."

The foundation's supporters, who number 8,000 atheists and agnostics nationwide and 436 in Florida, say that allowing the Ten Commandments to remain on the courthouse steps violates the First Amendment. They also say commissioners are ignoring recent court rulings that prohibit such displays.

"I think it may take a while" to find a local party to the lawsuit, acknowledged Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Madison, Wis., foundation, which works to keep religion out of government. "We have a lot of members in Florida. We just don't happen to have anybody in Dixie County."

The lack of a suitable plaintiff in Dixie County disappoints the group's supporters.

"If I lived there, I wouldn't hesitate to put my name as a plaintiff," said Jeff Kirk, 55, a foundation member who lives near Gainesville. "I don't understand why they don't put their monument on private property or church property."

Jeffrey Levine, a dental ceramist from Cape Coral, e-mailed the foundation after he heard about the Dixie County monument on television.

"It just galls me that religious people in this country have to smear their religious glands' secretions all over everything in the public rather than leaving the public institutions religion-neutral," said Levine, 61. "The government should not be endorsing anything to do with religion. I don't even like the religious suggestions on our dollar bills."

Though relatively quiet, there are voices of discontent in Dixie County.

"I'm Native American," Deborah Wright, 42, an aspiring prison guard said last month while looking at the monument. "Are they going to put my Native American Ten Commandments up there? They're only representing one, and we are many."

Allen Cook, a Wiccan who dropped by the courthouse to take a look at the monument, agreed.

"I don't know why they put it up," said Cook, 20, surrounded by a group of his Wiccan friends. "Nobody in Dixie County follows them anyway."

Driving by the courthouse, the Rev. Tommy Wayne Liles saw the youths, one of whom wore a T-shirt decrying false and feeble gods, and stopped.

"God's people need to stand up and be heard," said Liles, his voice booming in the courthouse hallways. "They need to let their voices be heard that they do stand for God."

Monument opponents aren't giving up

So far, it appears to be working. The commission, at least, has its mind set in stone.

"It's a great thing," said Commission Chairman James T. Valentine, a lifelong Dixie County resident and palm tree harvester.

The 59-year-old wears a gold cross pin on his lapel and testifies that he was healed from paralysis at 11 years old by a group of hard-praying Pentecostals. "I believe in the Ten Commandments. I stand for it. It didn't cost the county a dime."

Foundation leaders say they intend to keep trying.

Recently, they got a call from a Dixie County resident who refused to join the lawsuit but called to express support.

"We haven't given up," Gaylor said. "At this time of year, people are so busy. Lawsuits can sometimes take a long time to file. In terms of putting on a lawsuit, this is nothing."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com

Dixie County

Where: 55 miles west of Gainesville

Population: 13,827

Churches: About 20

Faith: Majority evangelical Christian

Largest Denomination : Southern Baptist

Source: The U.S. Census Bureau and the Association of Religion Data Archives