Surround Courthouse as Statue Showdown Continues
Satire by David Albrecht
MADISON, Wis. - As crowds of protestors gathered in Madison,
a university town noted for its generally liberal leanings,
the nation's attention has been drawn to the latest skirmish
in America's culture wars and to the newest front in the battle
over church-state separation. At issue: the proposed removal
of a marble bust of Thomas Paine from the hallway of the Dane
County Courthouse, along with a bronze plaque quoting from
Paine, the revolutionary firebrand whose "Common Sense"
helped rally colonists opposed to British rule in the early
days of the American Revolution, was an avowed atheist. As
a result of the planned removal, thousands of atheists, agnostics
and secular humanists from around the nation have rallied
to protest the planned removal of the bust of Paine by city
Dave Cieslewicz, the mayor of Madison, placed the statue
in the County Government Building's entrance hall three years
ago and in doing so, placed himself in direct opposition to
some members of his own City Council and to the federal court
system. Cieslewicz, who has been heartened by the support
the protestors have provided, said that "It is critical that
we recognize the seminal role that Paine played in the founding
of this great republic. I find it appalling that we are not
allowed to recognize the ways in which atheistic and deistic
thought has underpinned our Constitution and our system of
What had been a local controversy mushroomed into a national
firestorm with a recent Supreme Court decision supporting
the statue's removal. Writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision,
Justice Antonin Scalia stated that "There is no way under
the Constitution to allow this situation to continue. Mayor
Cieslewicz's actions, in choosing to give the sanction of
government to the image and thoughts of an atheist, is clearly
tantamount to the establishment of non-religion as state religion."
Initial drafts of Scalia's decision, which contained repeated
references to the "Lake of Fire" and the "Whore Babylon,"
were later pulled from the Supreme Court website, and replaced
by a shorter, edited version.
Since the standoff began, the courthouse has been ringed
with a crowd of atheists and skeptics ranging from hundreds
to thousands in number. During the long days of waiting, they
have been keeping their spirits up by spiritedly not singing
hymns and not praying. Also popular among the protestors are
public readings of the works of Bertrand Russell, Richard
Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, along with mass recitations of paragraphs
from Darwin's "Origin of Species."
A small counter-demonstration last Saturday by Topeka, KS
minister Fred Phelps met vocal, though peaceful opposition.
Phelps' group, carrying banners reading "Atheists Burn In
Hell" and "Every Knee Shall Bow" were shouted down with massed
chants of "Rea-SON! Rea-SON!" The same evening, a special
"Skeptics' Rally" climaxed with the burning of a 20-foot wooden
question mark on the courthouse lawn.
Local reaction has been mixed. Jean Delahunt, a long-time
Madison resident, has something of a bone to pick with the
protestors: "It's really irritating, the way they keep going
door to door. Last weekend, two different bunches of them
rang my doorbell, and both groups urged me to not to go to
church on Sunday." Downtown parking has also become something
of a problem - the streets downtown have become a sea of Volvo
station wagons and small, fuel-efficient cars bearing out-of-state
On the other hand, many local merchants are pleased with
sharp rises in sales of Birkenstocks, herbal teas, Utne Reader
magazine, double decaf lattes and works by Stephen Jay Gould
and Carl Sagan. "Parking's been a bit of a squeeze,"
said local bookstore owner Jay Thompson, "but in general business
Exactly what will happen next is unclear. Mayor Cieslewicz
vows to remain undeterred. If the statue is removed, he said,
"I'll be going to Washington to demand that both the statue
and the plaque be placed in the United States Capitol."