OIL CITY, Pa. — An atheist group in New Jersey is seeking the removal of a bench at a Pennsylvania park that is meant to honor veterans due to an inscription of a quote attributed to the state’s founder that mentions God.
American Atheists (AA) recently sent a letter to the mayor of Oil City to request that the Justus Park bench, which was donated in 2003 by a local branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), be removed out of its belief that its inscribed text violates the U.S. Constitution.
“Men who aren’t governed by God, will be governed by tyrants,” the bench reads, paraphrasing a quote that is often attributed to Pennsylvania founder William Penn, a Quaker who wrote a number of theological books and who once stood trial for “causing a tumult” in preaching in the streets.
AA contends that the quote violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which instructs that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The group also says the text is disrespectful to non-Christians.
“[T]he Tyrants Bench contains an overtly religious message which endorses one particular religious 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,” its letter asserted.
It offered to provide a secular bench in exchange for the current display.
“If Oil City agrees to remove the Tyrants Bench, American Atheists is willing to donate a new bench to replace the Tyrants 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,” AA wrote.
There is reportedly already a second bench at the memorial site, which only uses general language about the military. Other secular monuments also surround the vicinity of the bench.
Last month, city council members agreed to replace the bench, but some residents have been fighting to keep it in place. The site savethebench.org has raised over $17,000 in pledges to show Mayor William Moon that financial resources will be available if the matter needs to go to court.
“The quote by William Penn, appearing on the Tyrants Bench, honors Pennsylvania’s founding father, as well as the men and women who gave their lives to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens,” the site reads. “The Tyrants Bench is an expression of gratitude to those whom it honors, and no one has ever been forced to look at or use the bench.”
The religious liberties group Liberty Counsel has also offered to provide legal services pro bono to the city if it wishes.
“The VFW memorial, complete with the Tyrants Bench, is completely constitutional and does not violate the Establishment Clause in any way,” said Founder and Chairman Mat Staver. “The American Atheists are blatantly incorrect and acting out of complete ignorance. This William Penn quote is part of a tribute to the veterans and founders of America. I strongly urge the City Council of Oil City to maintain the bench in place.”
Liberty Counsel also wrote in its letter to Moon that passersby would not find the bench to constitute government speech because of its inscription “Erected 2003 by Oil City VFW Post 464.” It contended that God does not need to be scrubbed from public monuments in order for them to be constitutional.
“Moreover, within the immediate proximity to the veterans memorial are bronze sculptures depicting children playing by the river; an Oil City ‘derrick,’ a 9/11 memorial, and a sign discussing the historic origins of the park,” it additionally noted. “Thus, the overall effect of a single quotation attributed to William Penn, as one portion of a VFW memorial in context, in a park, surrounded by numerous other secular symbols, does not ‘advance religion’ as claimed by American Atheists.”