We agree: Tim is ‘a great American atheist’ By Tim Earl

By Tim Earl

In September 2014, as I finished a bike ride on one of our city trails, I stopped by our veterans memorial. Like many other such memorials, it included a wooden silhouette of a soldier kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. What caught my eye was the fact that the grave was not marked by a cross. Instead, it was a “battlefield cross,” a rifle in a pair of boots, topped by a helmet.

At the next meeting of our city Park Board, of which I was a member, I used my closing remarks to say that I was proud to live in a city where our memorial was inclusive of all veterans, and that I was especially touched by it as a non-Christian veteran.

The following June, on a similar bike ride, I again stopped at the memorial and noticed that the silhouette had been replaced. The new silhouette featured a Latin cross where the battlefield cross had been. I immediately drove across the street to the city manager’s office at City Hall. When I explained the issue to the deputy city manager, he agreed and said he would look into it. He also asked if I had a picture of the old memorial, which I provided.

While city business never moves at a very rapid pace, the city manager and his deputy handled this in what I considered a fairly expeditious manner. Over the next few weeks, I received updates from them as they investigated who was responsible for the memorial and why it had changed. It turned out that a group of veterans organizations had funded it, and one veteran built the silhouettes.

As the city manager told me the next time I saw him, “We Googled it and found two versions of this silhouette, one with a cross and one without. So we told him he was welcome to put up the noncross version (again), but the cross had to go.”

He told me there was a little pushback, but he reminded the memorial builder that it was a veteran who complained, and that he himself, also a veteran, agreed that it had to go. The city manager agreed to allow the cross silhouette to remain while a new silhouette was built but gave him a deadline of about four weeks.

So it seemed to be fairly noncontroversial. I later learned from the parks director (who did not know I was the source of the complaint) that the builder was actually a bit more upset than I had been led to believe, but they handled it. As it turned out, he chose not to provide a new, noncross silhouette.

‘A strange incident’

In July, I was asked by some concerned citizens to run for City Council. Given the factionalism that had recently divided our council, I agreed. From the beginning, we wondered if my atheism would be used as a campaign issue. (I had given four secular invocations by this point, beginning in 2012, and had won FFRF’s “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” award in 2014). We prepared for it, just in case, but my opponents had supported my invocations in the past, so we thought that might help. In fact, our mayor pro-tem (one of my main opponents) had complimented my invocations in a Wall Street Journal article in July 2014.

My Park Board term was due to expire Oct. 1, just over a month before the election, so in order to be reappointed to another term, I had to attend a meeting where board and commission candidates would be interviewed. (I would have to step down if I won the election.) It was here that a strange incident occurred.

When it came time to discuss the Park Board, the mayor stated that two current members had asked to be reappointed, which is automatic if their attendance and performance is considered acceptable. The city clerk confirmed my attendance and the Park Board chair said I contributed quite a bit to the board. Then, the mayor pro-tem said he had an issue he wanted to discuss.

He produced several large photos of the silhouette with the cross, which had been relocated to a local VFW post, and said he had “received complaints from veterans” about the removal. He asked if I had used my position as a Park Board member to have it removed. He made this statement in a tone laced with vitriol, getting a surprised reaction from many people present.

I calmly explained that I had brought the issue to city administration as a private citizen, and it had nothing to do with the Park Board. I said that our public memorial must honor all veterans, even nonbelievers such as myself. I was pleased to see nods of approval around the room as I spoke. I asked the city manager, whom I had criticized during my campaign (for reasons unrelated to the cross issue), to confirm my statement, and he did. The Park Board chair stated that it had never been brought to the board and she did not see it as an issue. I was reappointed to the board, but I was disturbed by this attack.

There was one more attempt to make my atheism an issue, but it wasn’t very sophisticated. Someone created a fake Facebook account and posted a video which combined Ron Reagan’s FFRF commercial with one of my secular invocations. He shared it on our local newspaper’s Facebook page with comments that included “Tim Earl is not afraid to tell it like it is to adults who believe in fairy tales” and “Tim Earl is a great American atheist.” It didn’t appear to gain much attention.

Other than that, the incumbents didn’t bring up my atheism during the campaign, at least not publicly. I’m not sure why, but three reasons come to mind: (1) their prior support for my invocations; (2) my ability to clearly articulate my position and explain how I support tolerance of all religions (which they had seen firsthand on more than one occasion); and (3) my status as a war veteran, which might make personal attacks backfire.

On Election Day, the three incumbents easily defeated me and the other challenger. Sadly, the state of affairs on our council is unlikely to improve, and I’ve now made enemies of two council members who previously supported me. But I did have some support, and I’ve been encouraged by many people to run again.

In the meantime, I won’t back down on advocating for the separation of church and state.

FFRF member Tim Earl lives in Portage, Mich., with his wife and two daughters. After leaving the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander in 2004, he started work as a fire safety consultant.

Freedom From Religion Foundation