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Atheist Flag Will Be Raised Over Ten Commandments Monument


On a small bit of land in Somersworth, N.H., two very different symbols are soon going to be sharing a space. At ground level, a monument of the Ten Commandments. Just above it, the atheist flag will blow in the breeze. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: At the intersection of High Street and Government Way in Somersworth stands a thick slab of engraved granite.

JOHN ALLARD: It looks like two tablets just like - I guess you could say like Moses brought off the mountain.

BOOKMAN: John Allard 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. In the 1950s, they paid for this monument as well as hundreds of similar ones around the country. The stated intention was to ward off juvenile delinquency.

ALLARD: And it's been there, as far as I know, for 60-some-odd years.

BOOKMAN: But last summer, the monument here was either intentionally knocked over or fell over. No one's really sure. The city, which owns the traffic island, suddenly faced a choice - should it be moved to private land or re-erected? It stirred intense debate. In the end, officials decided to put the monument back up but also add two flagpoles. One is for the city's official flag. The other flies a selection of flags that honor Somersworth's diversity. That's opened up the door to an interesting request.

RICHARD GAGNON: The city wants to celebrate diversity, and I don't think it can get much more diverse than putting an atheist flag over the Ten Commandments.

BOOKMAN: This is Richard Gagnon. Gagnon is an atheist and opposed to the monument residing on city land. He's patiently watched as what's known as the Citizens' flagpole has carried the Irish and Greek flags, the POW flag, even the Patriots' flag after the Super Bowl win.

GAGNON: They elected to go this route, I accept it. So I'm just asking for my turn at the flag pole.

BOOKMAN: If you're wondering, the atheist flag has a blue background and a slightly-tilted red A in the center. But at least one atheist won't be happy to see it fly. Somersworth city councilor Jennifer Soldati is opposed to the whole monument-flag compromise. She thinks the Ten Commandments should have been moved long ago.

JENNIFER SOLDATI: And I find this monument - not necessarily the words, what they're conveying as offensive. I don't - you know, I probably agree with every - all ten of them. But it is a Christian icon, it is. And it appears that we're promoting that.

BOOKMAN: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued mixed rulings on government displays of the Ten Commandments. To the mayor of Somersworth, the monument is a piece of history and should stay put. But Dana Hilliard comes from a different place on this than, say, Alabama's Roy Moore. Here's Hilliard during a press conference.


DANA HILLIARD: This is the city that elected the first openly-gay mayor in the state history, which is me. We just elected 1 of 8 transgendered individuals that was elected nationwide. I wear that as a badge certainly of honor, of a reflection of this community.

BOOKMAN: Hilliard, who's Catholic, says the monument and changing flags on the Citizens' flagpole don't promote any belief systems but rather a proof of tolerance for all beliefs.


HILLIARD: And I'm proud of that. I am proud that on this little plot of land that we can actually celebrate each other.

BOOKMAN: To back that up, Hilliard has agreed to fly the atheist flag during the entire month of January. John Allard with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the ones who first put up the monument in 1958, is OK with the move.

ALLARD: They can fly any flag they want over it. I don't think it's going to make a difference to God or anybody else.

BOOKMAN: In Somersworth, N.H., the devout and the doubters each get their turn. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman.


Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.