University of Florida under fire by atheists for Bible verse

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The verse Micah 6:8 is inscribed in an obscure and almost unreadable facade on the outside of the University of Florida's School of Business building, Heavener Hall, and has drawn the ire of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a liberal atheist group claiming the verse, a favorite of the school's benefactor, violates the First Amendment. The inset photo shows up close the archway with the verse, show in the larger photo below on the bottom right. | University of Florida Facilities

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- The Freedom from Religion Foundation is pressing the University of Florida to remove from one of its buildings a stone inscription which it claims violates the First Amendment.

According to an April 13 letter from the liberal watchdog group, the inscription of Micah 6:8 on Heavener Hall, which houses the school's College of Business Administration, "demonstrates a school preference for religion over nonreligion and for Christianity over all other faiths."

"When a school chooses to display an excerpt from a religious text, it signals to students who hold differing beliefs that they are outsiders ... excluded from the campus community," the letter said.

Micah 6:8 reads, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

While the passage is not exclusively Christian – it derives from an Old Testament prophetic book – the FFRF still calls it sectarian speech.

At least two groups on the university campus feel the same way.

Gator Free Thought and Humanists on Campus, with 45 members between them, sent a letter to university administrators shortly after they received the complaint from FFRF, in which they claimed the inscription "alienates members of the University of Florida community, such as ourselves, who do not hold the same beliefs."

The student groups argued the inscription is both "unconstitutional and purely sectarian" because it endorses Christianity or Judeo-Christian doctrines. They also wrote the biblical quote should be "replaced by a more secular, encompassing inscription."

Andrew Seidel, the staff attorney with FFRF who sent the original complaint to University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs, said the students were "standing up for their rights and taking an active interest in upholding the Constitution."

FFRF has a notorious reputation for suing to strip all vestiges of Judeo-Christian ethics and morality from public life since it was founded 39 years ago. Now led by minister turned atheist Dan Barker and feminist Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group has sued the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, school districts and universities.

The University of Florida seal with the words, "In God We Trust," is a prominent feature of the new School of Business Building, Heavener Hall. | University of Florida Facilities

In 2014 alone, the group mounted two challenges in federal court to religious displays on monuments, one with the Ten Commandments in front of a Pennsylvania public school and one designated as a "shrine to our Lord Jesus Christ" on federal property in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The group also challenged "passive" Bible distribution in Orange County, Fla., public schools and sued the IRS to overturn tax benefits for ministers of the gospel – primarily the tax exemption ministers receive for a parsonage.

In November 2014, the 7thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that case, claiming Barker and Gaylor lacked standing to pursue the case because they were not injured by ministers receiving the exemption.

University of Florida officials have not responded to the complaint letter yet, but are examining legal precedent to determine what laws affect such inscriptions on public buildings like Heavener Hall, the Gainesville Sun has reported.

Heavener Hall, named from James W. Heavener, a benefactor and board member of the university, was constructed largely through funds donated by Heavener, who said at the building dedication that the verse was a favorite of his, the Gainesville Sun reported.

But to Seidel, the private funds given for the building do not change the public endorsement of religion by the university. Generally, the Supreme Court has agreed. The Court has dealt with many such cases before, siding with atheists and others who object when an inscription or monument contains a religious message pertaining to a single religion.

The Court has, however, also recognized the historical value of seeing some monuments and inscriptions as teaching the impact of religion on history or the development of law, ethics and social structures.

In Van Orden v. Perry, for instance, the Court ruled 5-4 in 2005 that a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas capitol was constitutional because it served both secular and religious purposes.

Since the inscription is not a monument, but part of building, those who support the inscription may have a more difficult time should a lawsuit be filed, unless it can be argued that the verse represents multiple religions (Judaism and Christianity) and teaches something more than religion.

According to the Gainesville Sun, the university's Deputy General Counsel Amy Hass said school officials were reviewing the matter, but would likely not reach a decision quickly because of travel schedules and end-of-year school activities.

Seidel said his group was not in a rush to file a lawsuit, the newspaper reported.

"These things take time, particularly over the summer and when a huge donor is involved," Seidel said. "I would expect them to do something before school resumes to cut down on any backlash."

The Univeristy of Florida seal is prominently displayed under the archway of the school. It was adopted in 1956 as an alternative to E pluribut unum, which was adopted when the Great Seal of the United Staes was created and adopted in 1782, and reads "In God We Trust." It is also the motto of the state of Florida, adopted by the legislature in 1868 and officially designated in 2006 by a Florida state statute.