(Photo: The Christian Post)
An atheist organization has taken up the cause of a Florida man who has complained for several years that the display of a Bible in one city council's chambers is a violation of the Constitution.
Randy Heine, the owner of Rockin Cards and Gifts in Pinellas Park, Fla., told The Christian Post he was "stonewalled" by city officials when he tried to have the Bible removed from the dais in the city council chambers back in 2005. He could not afford to take legal action against the city, he says, so his mission was put on hold.
In June 2013 he reached out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an organization that promotes the separation of church and state of which he is also a member, to share his concern.
An FFRF staff attorney sent a letter to Pinellas Park Mayor Sandra Bradbury shortly after claiming that, among other things, displaying the Bible is a government endorsement of religion and is therefore unconstitutional.
"No legitimate purpose is served by having a bible [sic] on the dais. Its presence…only appears to express approval of its contents and of Christianity," wrote FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel.
Seidel told CP his organization sent several follow-up letters to the city, including one sent earlier this week, but city officials have not yet responded. The city has, however, worked with FFRF on an open records request that was included with the first letter.
Several federal courts have declared that displaying the Bible on government property is a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, he says. He also says he hopes city leaders will see that they can still exercise their beliefs privately and that FFRF is concerned with protecting the First Amendment.
"They're free to go to church on their own as often as they want. They're free to read the Bible on their own as often as they want. They're free to display the Bible in their homes. They just don't get to co-opt their government office to advance their religion," said Seidel.
Doug Lewis, the former fire chief of Pinellas Park who will become city manager next week, told FOX 13 that the city's attorney is reviewing FFRF's most recent letter.
"The Bible was given to the city by the Kiwanis Club, I believe when the building was dedicated," Lewis told the station. "They feel it's part of City Hall, as being part of the dedication ceremony, and it's become part of the history of the building."
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel with Liberty Institute, an organization that advocates for religious freedom, says the Bible has some characteristics of a historical marker, though he could not say for certain if it is being displayed legally based on limited available information.
Liberty Institute reached out to Pinellas Park on Wednesday, Dys says, and offered to help the city evaluate the legality of displaying the Bible. He also says FFRF wants to rid the government of all religious references, and that the city needs to evaluate the situation carefully and not merely bend to the organization's request.
"I know that the Pinellas Park folks are going to want to follow the law like everybody else is, and so if we've got to help them figure out how to abide by the law we'll do that. But that does not mean that they have to automatically whitewash the entire city of any religious reference whatsoever," he said.
Tim Caddell, the city's government relations administrator, told CP that the Bible's place in the council chambers gets questioned from time to time, though the mayor and council members have not felt the need to remove it.
In addition to the Bible, FFRF has also expressed concern over several other issues in Pinellas Park. These include the prayers said at the beginning of city council meetings, literature about a Catholic Church's upcoming events that have been included in local water bills and concerns over whether or not a Christian school that is renting from the city is receiving preferential treatment.