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Atheists Surround Courthouse as Statue Showdown Continues
September 23, 2003
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 his works.

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 authorities.

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 government."

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 plates.

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 is good."

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."

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