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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
VICTORY! Oakland Zoo Removed Ten Commandments Monument
On Wednesday, July 25, 2012, the Oakland Zoo, a public institution owned by the City of Oakland, removed a Ten Commandments monument erected by the Eagles in 1966. Their actions averted a protest led by the California State Director of American Atheists, East Bay Atheists, and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco.
The protest was organized after Joey Piscitelli contacted Larry Hicok, the California State Director, through the American Atheists web site. Mr. Piscitelli is the Northern California Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and an accomplished activist. As a pagan atheist, he formally complained to the Zoo in 2008 after discovering a large Ten Commandments monument beside the Snow building at the zoo. When renting the hall for $3,000 for his daughter's wedding, Mr. Piscitelli was shown the garden on the right side of the hall and the interior of the building. He did not notice the tablet, which was not readily visible in the darkness on the left side of the building. Once he discovered the tablet, it was too late to find another venue. He complained to the administration, only to be informed by a management person that the US Constitution was based on the Ten Commandments, which, the employee deduced, gives them legal rights to display the monument. He then wrote a complaint letter to the Zoo, but they never replied.
Recently, he decided to rent the venue again, only to discover that the Ten Commandments were still displayed there. He formally complained via email to numerous city officials, and to the Oakland Zoo management. The only reply he received was from Deputy city attorney, Mark Morodomi. Mr. Morodomi informed Mr. Piscatelli that the monument was legal based upon a recent Supreme Court decision regarding a similar plaque in Texas. The Texas decision found the Ten Commandments display legal because they were originally placed together with other historical displays. At the same time, the Supreme Court found a single Ten Commandment monument on government property in Kentucky illegal, a scenario that mirrors Oakland.
Regardless of legal issues, the City of Oakland should do what is right, rather than basing policies on those found in Texas. Joel Parrot, the President of the Oakland Zoo, agrees with us. He told the press that the monument did not belong at the zoo, even if it was deemed legal. Therefore, he had it removed the Wednesday before the scheduled Sunday protest. He claimed that the zoo had already planned to remove the monument. We salute Mr. Parrot’s enlightened perspective, but must point out the following conflicting facts.
Why were Mr. Piscitelli’s written complaints ignored? Why was a management person at the zoo so poorly trained that their reply to Joey’s complaint was filled with such extreme theocratic rhetoric? Why did the City of Oakland choose to rely solely on a poorly researched legal opinion from a city attorney in their reply to Mr. Piscitelli? Why did the Oakland Zoo remain silent on this issue until several days before the protest?
Even with these unanswered questions, this can be counted as a victory for the power of atheist political activism. The courts no longer provide us with the protection we once received from a more liberal Supreme Court. Instead, our community must come out of the closet and stand up for its rights, or those rights will be lost.
We would certainly have won this fight had the issue gone to court. However, by organizing what promised to be a highly successful protest, accompanied by professional advisories to the press, our community came together to let the Bay Area know that we value the protections guaranteed by the first amendment, that we demand respect, and our opinions must be considered when instituting policy. This is the path we must travel if we want to achieve long-term success.
Larry Hicok, California State Director
Links to other media outlets reporting on this story:
The Huffington Post
The San Francisco Chronicle