Atheists’ request sparks curiosity with Chiefland

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Chiefland commissioners are taking notes on the godless, and they’re pretty sure at least some of them come from Williston.

The commission has been refining its monument placement rules at City Hall, officially, for more than a year, with final approval of an ordinance just a few weeks ago. The new rules, among other things, require that monuments show historical significance on the federal, state or local level. And commissioners have been tweaking the application process for such monuments, hoping certain requirements would not exclude some groups.

But a recent application from the Williston Atheists group to place a bench by the Levy County Courthouse in Bronson on a forum where there is a Ten Commandments monument has Chiefland officials wanting to see how events play out before taking any action. 

“Don’t we all think that if the County Commission votes ‘no’ that there’s going to be a lawsuit?” Chiefland City Attorney Norm Fugate asked commissioners Monday night. “It’s probably good to keep a close eye ….”

“What kind of people live over there in Williston?” Mayor Teal Pomeroy asked jokingly of Fugate, a Williston resident.

Issues from the placement of monuments at Chiefland City Hall have been springing up now and then ever since a 6-ton Ten Commandments monument was donated to the city more than five years ago. The monument, owned by Old Town businessman Joe Anderson, was removed in 2012 to go on a tour of the state. 

Coincidentally, its departure also came on the heels of a public records request about the details of the monument from the American Civil Liberties Union, which was, at that time, embroiled in a lawsuit against the Dixie County Commission over an exact replica of the Chiefland monument. That, too, was donated by Anderson.

That Dixie County lawsuit was eventually dropped.

It wasn’t long after that Chiefland commissioners began updating the city’s ordinance for placement of monuments on city property. Back then, Chiefland officials would neither confirm nor deny that the Ten Commandments would be returned to the lawn in front of City Hall. Yet the new Chiefland ordinance echos one in Bradford County, which sets a “free speech zone” that allowed American Atheists to place a stone bench with historical writings engraved on it near a Ten Commandments monument at the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke. That Ten Commandments monument was also donated by Anderson. Bradford County now has several monuments at its courthouse as a result.

Chiefland’s ordinance is designed to protect the city from lawsuits, though it could open the city up to similar requests.

And there are other potential problems, too. At the last commission meeting, Pomeroy said there had been a veterans group interested in placing a monument, but, he explained, the application specifies that a monument donor is required to carry $2 million in liability insurance, which would ensure legal issues are handled by the donor, not the city. But few can afford to maintain such insurance year after year, he said.

On Monday, Fugate said the liability requirement does not have to be in the application, though it would be a risky move.

Pomeroy suggested requiring that all the monuments be made “portable,” to aid in reducing the risk of lawsuits.

When the Ten Commandments at City Hall was, in essence, made portable in 2012, Fugate, while not stating that its removal was a legal strategy, did say that a lawsuit wasn’t likely if the monument was gone.

Monday night, Pomeroy asked if removing a monument was a good strategy in such a scenario. “Then we can say, ‘Take your monument.’”

Fugate said the city couldn’t pick and choose. “We’d have to say, ‘All come take your monuments.’”

“I would say let people put ‘em up … but if it did get so bad with people suing and all, get ‘em gone,” Pomeroy said.

“Do y’all want to just do away with monuments all together?” Fugate asked.

Pomeroy said he’d like to allow monuments but not require the liability insurance, which only allows a “select group” that can afford it. “That’s something I would vote for.”

Fugate again reminded Pomeroy of the potential for lawsuits.

Chiefland resident Charley King, who earlier in the discussion advocated for the rights of any group to place a monument as long as it followed the requirements,  said the best way to go is to “just say ‘no’ to all of ‘em.”

Commissioners agreed to bring up the matter again at the city’s Feb. 10, a week after the Feb. 4 County Commission meeting where the atheist monument application must be decided under the county's guidelines.

Commissioner Betty Walker said, “Let’s see what happens Tuesday.”