First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Florida, where a monument to atheism was unveiled on government property for the first time in American history.
Local Christians were permitted to erect a Ten Commandments monument at the Bradford County courthouse in Starke, Florida, prompting a lengthy legal dispute over the separation of church and state. Officials eventually struck a deal -- if atheists dropped the lawsuit, which they were likely to win, they could erect their own monument on the property.
And so, this week, American Atheists did exactly that, unveiling a privately-funded, 1,500-pound granite bench, honoring church-state separation, secularism, and atheism. Because of the prevalence of Ten Commandments displays at courthouses, especially throughout the South, the group says it has plans to erect 50 more monuments just like this one.
The strategy is based on a simple principle: in an open forum, the government can't play favorites. If Christians can have a monument to the tenets of their beliefs, so can atheists. Indeed, so can literally every other group with a distinct set of beliefs about religion -- it's not hard to imagine courthouses needing to reserve space for monuments for Baptists, Buddhists, and the Baha'i; as well as Sikhs, Scientologists, and Satanists.
There are, after all, no second-class Americans citizens when it comes to the First Amendment. If one group has the right to erect a monument, so does everyone else.
The alternative is the government remaining neutral, and leaving these monuments for private property, but Ten Commandments activists said that's not what they want. They opened the door, and it's going to get crowded as others walk through it.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Remember that case we've been following about the religious right activists trying to block yoga classes in San Diego? They lost -- a local court ruled this week that yoga does not constitute religious instruction. Of particular interest, the judge said the plaintiffs seemed to be relying on inaccurate information they found online. "It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does," the judge said (thanks to reader R.P. for the tip).
* It's hard to believe, but Hobby Lobby's argument that corporations have religious liberties appears to be winning in court: "In a health care decision giving hope to opponents of the federal birth-control coverage mandate, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that Hobby Lobby stores won't have to start paying millions of dollars in fines next week for not complying with the requirement."
* A stunning development in the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal: "Tragic as the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been, it is shocking to discover that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while archbishop of Milwaukee, moved $57 million off the archdiocesan books into a cemetery trust fund six years ago in order to protect the money from damage suits by victims of abuse by priests."
* The right-wing Family Research Council, a leading organization in the religious right movement, is planning an event to honor what it's calling "Ex-Gay Pride Month," a new celebration "to recognize former homosexuals." The announcement comes on the heels of the collapse of Exodus International, a so-called "ex-gay" ministry.
* And in Skiatook, Okla., a sermon from Baptist preacher Jim Standridge has generated quite a bit of attention in religious circles over the last couple of weeks. A video from the weekly services shows Standridge insulting members of his congregation, which is generally considered unusual.