On a small bit of land in Somersworth, New Hampshire, two very different symbols will soon share space. At ground level, a monument of the Ten Commandments, and just above it, the “atheist flag” will blow in the breeze.
The dueling symbols bring up questions of belief, inclusion, and the separation of church and state.
On a busy stretch of road in downtown Somersworth, cars and pedestrians navigate the intersection of High Street and Government Way. There’s a small traffic island covered in brown mulch, in the middle of which stands a thick slab of engraved granite.
“Well, it looks like two tablets, just like, I guess you could say, like Moses brought off the mountain,” says John Allard, who is a resident of Somersworth, a Catholic, and a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
The Eagles are a non-profit, non-religious group. They paid for this monument of the Ten Commandments back in the 1950’s. The Eagles actually funded hundreds of similar monuments around the country. The stated intention was to ward off juvenile delinquency.
“And it’s been there, as far as I know, for 60-some-odd-years,” he says.
It’s been a fixture. But last summer, the Ten Commandments monument here was either intentionally knocked over or fell over, no one's really sure. The City, which owns the traffic island, suddenly had to make a choice. Should it be moved to private land? Or re-erected? It stirred intense debate.
In the end, the City decided to put the monument back up, but also add two flag poles. One would fly the city’s official flag, the other would be a rotating flag to honor Somersworth’s diversity.
That’s opened the door to a rather unconventional request.
“The City wants to celebrate diversity, and I don’t think you can get much more diverse than putting an atheist flag over the Ten Commandments,” says Richard Gagnon, a soft-spoken man who has brought a bit of commotion to town.
Gagnon is an atheist (he prefers the title “free thinker”), and is opposed to the monument residing on city land. But he’s patiently watched as the citizen’s flag pole has raised the Irish and Greek flags, the POW flag, even the Patriots flag after the Super Bowl championship.
“They elected to go this route, I accept it. So I’m just asking for my turn at the flagpole,” he says.
If you’re wondering, the atheist flag has a blue background and a slightly tilted red “A” in the center. A scarlet letter, to be sure.
Somersworth City Councilor Jennifer Soldati, who happens to be an atheist, is opposed to not only the flags, but the whole compromise. She thinks the City should have removed the Ten Commandments long ago.
“And I find this monument, not necessarily the words, what they are conveying, as offensive. I probably agree with all ten of them. But it is a Christian icon, it is. And it appears that we are promoting that,” she says.
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued mixed rulings on government displays of the Ten Commandments. Right now, nobody in Somersworth appears to have the appetite to fight this dispute in the courts.
To the mayor of Somersworth, the monument is a piece of this city’s history and should stay in the traffic island. But Dana Hilliard comes from a different place on this than, say, Alabama’s Roy Moore.
“This is the city that elected the first openly gay mayor in state history, which is me. We just elected one of eight transgendered individuals that was elected nationwide. I wear that as a badge of honor, a reflection of this community,” said Hilliard during a press conference in City Hall.
Somersworth's Mayor, who is Catholic, has championed the monument and the neighboring citizen’s flag pole. To him, they’re a sign not of favoring a certain belief system, but rather proof of tolerance for all beliefs.
“And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that on this little plot of land, that we can celebrate each other,” says Hilliard.
To back that up, Hilliard has given the green light to fly the atheist flag above the Ten Commandments during the month of January.
John Allard with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the ones who first put up the monument in 1958, is okay with the move.
“They can fly any flag they want over it, but I don’t think it is going to make a difference to God or anybody else,” says Allard.
In Somersworth, the devout and the doubters each get their turn.