American Atheists Want Quotation on Justus Park VFW Memorial Changed

| November 9, 2016

OIL CITY, Pa. (EYT) – The American Atheists Legal Center (AALC) is requesting wording be changed on a bench in Justus Park in Oil City.  The bench is one of four memorials donated to the park in 2003 by the Oil City Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 464.

AALC sent a certified letter dated November 3, 2017, to Oil City Mayor William P. Moon objecting to the wording on the Tyrants Bench and claiming that the display likely violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”  AALC received a complaint about the engraved bench on October 25, 2016.

Although the memorial was placed in Justus Park in 2003, the AALC letter requests a reply within five business days whether the city will consider a proposal by AALC to replace the bench with a new quotation at no cost to Oil City taxpayers.

“After receiving the complaint, American Atheists obtained pictures of the entire VFW Memorial and understands the intent of the obelisk in two benches is to honor those who have served and died overseas,” wrote AALC Staff Attorney Geoffrey T. Blackwell.

“However, the Tyrants Bench contains an overtly religious message which endorses one particular viewpoint: Christianity. The statement that “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God, Will Be Governed By Tyrants” not only has absolutely nothing to do with honoring our service members but is derisive toward the all non-Christian American service members who have served and died for this country.”

According to AALC, the number of non-Christian service members is significant; 23.5 percent of the men and women who serve our country – well over 500,000 individuals – have identified themselves as either an atheist, an agnostic, or having no religious preference.

Moon elected to provide a copy of the letter to VFW Commander Jason Reed because it is a VFW memorial and donated by the local post. He asked the post to decide what it wants to do.

“I’m just waiting to hear back from Jason,” said Moon. “I know it is on public property with the city and all of that.  I was kind of surprised with the letter after 13 years. Kind of funny that all of a sudden there’s a problem, but so be it, and we’ll work through it.”

AALC felt the government is required to maintain the separation between itself and religion while also refraining from taking positions, which are hostile to any particular religious points of view.

The legal group also offered a remedy for the Tyrants Bench.

“However, we believe that this violation may be easily remedied at no cost to the Oil City taxpayers – or the VFW. If Oil City  agrees to remove the Tyrants Bench, American Atheists is willing to donate a new bench to replace this bench that would be the same as the second bench in the VFW Memorial, except it would have a message that honors all of the brave men and women who have fought for the United States,” wrote the AALC. “We are willing to work with the with VFW Post 464 and to find a mutually agreeable quote, and so long as the quote is approved by American Atheists, our organization will pay the costs incurred in constructing the new bench and installing it in place of the Tyrants Bench.”

Jason Reed, Commander of VFW Post 464, is taking the letter to a post meeting this Thursday for their decision and provide Mayor Moon with a response.

“When I got that from Bill yesterday, if he wants my decision on that, my decision is keep that there,” said Reed. “Don’t change anything is my choice.  But, we have a post meeting with all of the members the second Thursday of every month. I will take that letter down to the post meeting this Thursday and ask what the post wants to do.  It’s not my decision – I’m not the VFW, the members of this post are the VFW. I will have an answer for the mayor on Thursday night on what we want to do.”

Reed also questioned the time frame for a response and what will happen in the future.

“I wanted to get this out to everybody when I saw the letter yesterday; it’s absolutely insane,” said Reed.  “They said we had five days to respond, but then what?  They quoted some legal cases, but I have other cases, too.  If it goes anywhere, a judge is not going to take that away.  If they want to go the legal way, I am talking to attorneys about any legal right they have to come in here and make us do this.”

As a practical matter, the bench in question is made out of black marble and could be quite expensive. 

“It’s more expensive than it was in 2003; I can guarantee that.”

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