Tyrants Bench to be Removed from Oil City’s Justus Park Given Back to VFW
After a lengthy discussion between the Oil City Council and the public present at Thursday’s council meeting, council voted unanimously to remove the “Tyrants Bench” from Justus Park and return it, another bench, and a memorial back to the Oil City VFW as per the VFW’s wishes if the bench was going to be removed.
The city was first asked to remove the bench in a November 3 letter from The American Atheists Legal Center (AALC), which claimed the display likely violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”
The bench is inscribed with “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God Will Be Governed By Tyrants,” a quote attributed to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
The issue seemed to have quieted down in recent months, but according to city solicitor Robert Varsek, the city recently received a letter from the atheist group threatening to go ahead with litigation if the bench wasn’t removed by May 3.
“From an administration standpoint, this is heading toward litigation,” City manager Mark Schroyer said. “At that point, we have to decide what are our wins, losses, and gain. What is the solicitor telling us after consultation with other legal experts? Our position is very poor from a legal standpoint. Our collective opinion is – if it’s winnable, it would be so costly what would we actually be gaining other than taking the stand our residents are asking?”
Varsek said after talking to the city’s insurance carrier that they might or might not cover all of the fees associated with a lawsuit if the city were to lose.
“Our biggest concern is exposure to attorney fees,” Varsek said. “We would be sued for injunctive relief where they order the city to remove the bench, and for damages and also be sued for attorney fees under the civil rights law. Our insurance would extend to a large fee depending on how the award is issued. If it’s part of damages, they would cover it. If it’s part of injunctive relief, the company doesn’t cover it, so it kind of rolling the dice. It would be a pretty large exposure to the community and to the taxpayer.”
In addition, Varsek said the insurance company would pick the attorney that represented the city in a lawsuit. The city wouldn’t have a say.
“I find it very disappointing that someone raised this issue, and here we are,” Councilman Ronald Gustafson said. “It’s a huge financial risk to the city. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I don’t feel it (the case) is winnable as to how it relates to the inscription. I can’t see how it relates to honoring vets, but it can be perceived to be demeaning to certain people of a certain belief. Freedom of religion means we all have a right to our beliefs. It’s a shame that something that’s been there for 13 years has fallen into our laps, but as a government, it’s our responsibility to see all sides. I don’t see how that particular engraving can be defended as a freedom of speech. It is, but it’s also stating a pretty strong religious opinion.”
Councilman Michael Poff said he sees how the removal of the bench can be seen as an attack on Christianity, but he doesn’t see it that way personally.
“As you sit on that bench and see dozens of churches in the city, I’m pretty sure as myself, as a citizen, my Christianity won’t be dictated by a bench. It won’t dictate what I do and how I live my life. I’m not willing to go to the mattress for a bench. While the bench is wonderful and is nice, at the end of the day, it’s a bench. As tough as it may be for some people to swallow, it’s not a fight between angels and demons. It’s a bench.”
Poff pointed out the irony of the bench have an inscription credited is that Penn believed that government and religion should be separate.
“It refers back to when Penn was living in England,” Poff said. He became a Quaker against the Church of England. His father and the King were persecuting Quakers. The tyrant he is referring to is his dad and the King of England. He is saying that his country shouldn’t be telling people what religion they should practice.”
Varsek said one of the issues with the bench is that the issue of government speech would be the issue.
“Government speech would be the driving force,” Varsek said. “By accepting the bench and maintaining the quote, it becomes government speed and government speech has to hold up the constitutional right to no establishment of religion.”
Poff explained what that meant.
“As a government, it’s not our First Amendment right to have a quote on a public bench,” Poff said. “You can, I can, but not as a government.”
Heather Mohnkern, one the organizers of a save the bench campaign, made one final plea to council.
“I hear what you are saying,” Mohnkern said. “But freedom of speech and religion are important to us. We know it seems like it’s just a bench, but we know it’s a lot bigger and a lot deeper than that. I too am a public official, when we take office, we say we uphold the Constitution and other people’s freedoms. It’s not easy, and we aren’t asking you to risk it alone. They are using Oil City as a pawn in a strategy for a bigger cause. They don’t care about the bench.”
Mohnkern said her group has raised around $18,000.00 to help the city offset any legal costs it might face, and she believed that they would be able to raise more now that people know the issue wasn’t a dead one.
“There are a lot of freedom loving conservatives who have come to light across this country since the last election,” Mohnkern said.
Mohnkern asked council if it would consider a public forum space within the park for the bench. She cited an example from Belle Plaine, Minn., where an atheist group originally forced the removal of a cross from a war memorial, but the city council voted 3-2 to put it back up in a Public Forum Space where anyone of any belief could express their opinions.
“If financial constraints seem to be a factor, then we ask for a similar resolve as Belle Plaine,” Mohnkern said.
Poff said he understands what she was saying but believed that could lead to bigger issues.
“People could put anything there,” Poff said. “They could put a bench saying that those who are governed by God are governed by Tyrants.”
Rob Lazar then spoke and warned that if the bench went, what would go next.
“We celebrated here in Oil City a Good Friday breakfast,” Lazar said. “Following the breakfast was a cross walk. A group walk around the city with a cross indicating the greatest thing that has every happened to mankind. What’s next? Will we not be allowed to hold the cross walk on city streets?”
Lazar also said it’s his belief that government gets its power from God.
“Scripture says government gets its authority from God, himself,” Lazar said. “It’s not about a bench, but what’s written on it. Where do we draw the line?”
Eric Reamer, the pastor of the Oil City Free Christian Church, said he believes the quote on the bench was always meant as more of a statement of objective vs. subjective truth.
“I think it means if people were a nation and took God as a good, stabilizing factor,” Reamer said.
Martha Sterner said she was disappointed most of council’s discussion about the bench was held in private executive sessions.
“I’ve been coming to these meetings for several months,” Sterner said. “You have had many closed executive session. You obviously had your minds made up. We (as a community) haven’t had the opportunity (to have the information you have had). We could have done the same research and maybe come up with an opposite conclusion. It feels a little disingenuous.”
Mayor William Moon said the bench issue only resurfaced two weeks ago.
“We were hopeful that it was going to just go away,” Moon said.
The next to last person to speak on the matter was Jason Reed, the commander of the Oil City VFW, which donated not only the “Tyrants Bench” but also another bench and a memorial to the city.
“Here we are again,” Reed said. “It’s a bench. That all it is. I have three combat tours under my belt, and it’s a bench. Freedom of Speech and Religion, that’s what I fought for.”
“The VFW didn’t just donate a bench. It donated two benches and a memorial. If (the city elects to remove the bench) it should give us the two benches and the memorial back, and we will put it on our property. I understand your position. It’s a choice I won’t want to have to make. Just take our three-piece memorial into consideration. We will put the memorial up in a prominent place for everyone to see.”
Council liked Reed’s offer to take the entire memorial and ultimately voted to do so. They also said they will continue discussions on what kind of memorial to replace the VFW-donate memorial with.
“Personally, at home, I’m furious about this,” Gustafson said. “But here (at council) I have to look out for the financial stability of this community. We can’t afford a six-figure hit.”
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