SOMERSWORTH, N.H. — A request from a local member of a national professing atheist organization to temporarily fly an atheist flag over a Ten Commandments monument in New Hampshire has been granted, and is scheduled to be hoisted next month.
As previously reported, the city council of Somersworth voted to reinstall a nearly 60-year-old Ten Commandments display after it was toppled by an unknown vandal in August 2016. The council also approved a plan to add historic markers and two flagpoles next to the biblical monument to help “neutralize” its presence. Groups can apply to have their flag displayed for a month.
“It is my intention to honor the history of the monument, the sensitivity surrounding the monument and its role in history, but at the same time balance the question of constitutionality surrounding it,” said Mayor Dana Hilliard.
The Ten Commandments are displayed on a small city-owned traffic island named Citizen’s Place, located next to Somersworth City Hall. Atheist activists have argued for years that the monument is unconstitutional.
“The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why the Ten Commandments may not be posted on government property,” wrote the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in a 2013 letter to the Somersworth mayor and city council. “The government has no business telling citizens which god they must have, how many gods they must have, or that they must have any god at all.”
Although FFRF’s attempts to remove the Ten Commandments display have been unsuccessful, the secular group on Tuesday announced that they will soon be “hoisting a first-of-its-kind flag” on one of the nearby flagpoles to protest the monument.
“We believe the town needs to ‘honor thy First Amendment,’” stated FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “With such a religious shrine glaringly on display, we have to present our viewpoint.”
In an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Gaylor described the Ten Commandments display as “an affront to our Constitution and an affront to the people who don’t believe in the Bible.”
While the national headquarters of FFRF specifically said in its press release that the effort is to “protest [the] New Hampshire town’s Ten Commandments display,” local resident and FFRF member Richard Gagnon, who requested the flag on behalf of the group, said that it is not.
“It’s not a protest,” he told the Union Leader. “I applied on behalf of FFRF because I wanted to express in a positive way that we are here.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Hilliard voiced support for the atheist-honoring flag, which features a red “A” on a blue background.
“As … a Catholic, I look forward to standing with fellow believers and non-believers and celebrating our common bond with humanity,” he said in a statement.
“Citizens Place was created to honor and celebrate all members of our society who embrace democratic values,” the mayor added. “I look forward to continuing that practice and modeling why Somersworth is the most open community in the state.”
The atheist flag was initially scheduled to be raised on Dec. 4 to celebrate the winter solstice, but the flag-raising has since been postponed to Jan. 2, according to local reports. Once it is raised, the atheist flag will remain on display until the end of the month.
Although Hilliard said approving the flag was a “no-brainer,” dozens of online commenters have since voiced opposition to the atheist flag.
“Atheists and minority faiths should not be persecuted, but a community doesn’t have to display or express every minority faith that exists among them,” one wrote. “That’s not how democracy works.”
“There is no Constitutional mandate for the separation of Church and State,” another chimed in. “What the Constitution does mandate is that the federal government shall not establish a state Church, nor shall the government interfere in the Church’s business, nor shall the Church interfere in the running of the government. Nowhere does it say that people have to leave their religion at home or in the church building.”