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Boiseans Defeat Theocratic Initiative

Jan. 3, 2007

On Nov. 7, 2006, the citizens of Boise stood athwart Idaho's religious juggernaut by soundly defeating an initiative to put a Ten Commandments monument back into a Boise city park. So sure had the monument advocates been of victory that they had scheduled a victory party at a Boise motel on election evening!

Like so many Ten Commandments monuments, Boise's monument had been installed in 1965, courtesy of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. There has been some speculation that the monument was installed to bring "morality" back to Boise following a newspaper-inspired "gay scare" that rocked Boise in the mid-1950s.

Boise's monument probably would have gone unnoticed (it was in an out-of-the-way corner of Julia Davis Park) had not "Rev." Fred Phelps requested in late 2003 an antigay monument in Boise's park. Even though the Boise Parks and Recreation Commission rejected Phelps' monument, Boise's fundamentalists staged a rally of support in Dec. 2003 for Boise's Ten Commandments monument and for former Judge Roy Moore's efforts to have a Ten Commandments monument kept in Alabama's state supreme court building.

In an effort to avoid further controversy, the Boise City Council voted 4-2 in Jan. 2004 to remove the Boise monument. This enraged several local leaders of the religious right, specifically Brandi Swindell (who has been active in battling against women's reproductive rights) and Bryan Fischer (a "defrocked" pastor originally from out of state who is currently lecturing Idahoans on "Idaho values"). Together they formed a group called the Keep The Commandments Coalition to ensure that Julia Davis Park kept its monument.

As the Boise battle was heating up in early 2004, State Sen. Gerry Sweet (R-Meridian) introduced a bill to erect a monument in the Idaho statehouse that would include the Ten Commandments. Sweet had earlier tried to get a Ten Commandments monument in the statehouse but had failed because of its obvious religious overtones. This time he appeared to be camouflaging the religious aspects by throwing in five other documents that were also, as it turned out, mostly religious.

While Sen. Sweet was promoting an Idaho Ten Commandments monument, his fellow religious legislator, Rep. Bill Sali (R-Kuna), introduced a bill that would have had the effect of preventing the removal of Boise's Ten Commandments monument. Both Sweet's and Sali's bills went nowhere. Sali is the newly elected representative from Idaho's First Congressional District, whose 16 years in the Idaho Legislature had been spent attacking women's reproductive rights.

In March 2004, Boise's Ten Commandments monument was moved to St. Michael's Episcopal Church across from the Idaho Statehouse the Idaho State Capitol building. In the new position, the monument was much more visible and it was closer to the seat of power in Idaho. Still, the monument supporters were not satisfied.

Citing a poll they had commissioned which reported that only 23 percent of Boise citizens supported the city's decision to remove the monument, the Keep the Commandments Coalition launched a petition drive in June 2004 to get a new monument installed in Julia Davis Park. Boise City lawyers argued that the issue should not be addressed through an initiative process because the request related to an administrative act, not an ordinance. In October 2004, District Court Judge Ronald Wilper ruled that the City of Boise could not put the initiative on the ballot.

Undeterred, the monument supporters appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, where one of the justices (Daniel Eismann) had once attended the church where monument supporter Bryan Fischer had been pastor. Refusing to recuse himself, Eismann ruled with the majority in August 2006 "that the city of Boise was wrong to deny a 2004 petition to ask voters whether they want a Ten Commandments monument at the park."

The monument supporters now had their initiative which their 2004 poll indicated would pass by a large margin. To provide a secular cover, the initiative called for three monuments to be installed (all at private expense): (1) a Ten Commandments monument; (2) a monument with some words from Thomas Jefferson's Virginia statute for religious freedom; and (3) a monument stating the city's commitment to religious freedom and acknowledging the secular influence of the monuments. It was never explained how the Ten Commandments monument could be consider "secular." The rationale for this three-monument approach was derived from a 1995 decision by federal Judge Edward Lodge approving a similar approach in front of the Bannock County Courthouse in Pocatello, Idaho.

Through the efforts of The Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, several religious, humanist, and civil rights leaders in the Boise area staged a rally against the initiative on the steps of Boise City Hall on Oct. 25, 2006. Titled "Voices of Faith and Good Will for Religious Freedom: Ten Commandments Should Be on Religious Ground," nine speakers (including yours truly) listed the various reasons why the Ten Commandments monument should not be on public property. As one Islamic scholar so eloquently stated, "The commandments should be in our hearts, not our parks." All of the local commercial television stations covered the rally.

Despite mailings, leaflets, phone banks and other publicity, the monument initiative fell to the forces of reason on Nov. 7, even in the face of statewide approval of hard-right Republican candidates and a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

One former classmate, a lifelong conservative Republican and a supporter of religious values, told me after the election that he had voted against the initiative because he was tired of these people always lecturing him on what he should do. Perhaps it is this disapproval of meddling with public opinion and private lives that led to our victory.

Gary L. Bennett is a consultant who has worked on a number of challenging space missions. His articles have appeared in Astronomy, Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, Freethought Today and Popular Science, as well as in numerous technical publications dealing with the space program. His science fiction novel The Star Sailors was nominated for the Prometheus Award. Even though he serves on the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, this article represents his own views and not those of any organization to which he belongs.

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