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County reacts to religious controversy

Ten Commandments monument outside courthouse draws protests

STARKE, Fla. – An attorney for Bradford County gave the county's reaction Monday to a controversy regarding a monument of the Ten Commandments outside the county courthouse, which sparked protests over the weekend.

More than 100 people protested in the ongoing debate over the religious marker on county property.

A group called the American Atheists believe the marker outside the courthouse violates the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, which guarantees the separation of church and state.

"For a non-believer, Muslim or anybody who is not of the Christian faith coming into the courthouse here, they have to automatically feel that they're not going to be treated fairly," said Ken Loukinen, of American Atheists.

Loukinen and others say the marker belongs outside of a church, not a courthouse. The group is asking the Board of Commissioners to remove the Ten Commandments monument off of public property.

Members of local churches and a much larger group of Christians counter-protested to show their support for the marker staying where it is.

"I just think it's time for God's people to take a stand," Cassandra Kiser, who doesn't agree with separation of church and state.

"I don't believe in anything that goes against God," said Jimmy Thomas, who drove to Starke from Palatka.

County attorney Terence Brown spoke Monday about the controversy.

"I think what was done here was legal," he said.

The monument was bought and paid for by a private group called the Community Men's Fellowship. Brown said earlier in the year, none of the board members voiced any concerns over allowing a religious marker to sit on government property.

"It's government property but it's public property," he said. "This is private speech by private people. If the atheists are there and they want to protest, they're entitled to do that."

There was a similar case like this is in Dixie County. Last year, a federal judge ordered the county to remove a Ten Commandments marker after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit. Several years ago, another federal judge ruled that the city of Starke could not keep a lighted cross on top of its water tower.

Brown said if a judge rules against Bradford County, the county will have no choice but to remove it from the property.

"It's not owned by the county. This was not a gift to the county. It belongs to a private organization. That's part of the criteria," Brown said.

The American Atheists say they plan to file suit against the county if the marker is not moved away from the courthouse. Brown said the board can discuss the issue at its next board meeting, which will be June 4.