Buckner Shares His Side of Ga. Park Ordeal
Ed Buckner, 67, calls he and his family “big fans of state and national parks and have been for years.” The son of an Episcopal clergyman, Buckner has visited most of Georgia’s state parks and stayed in state park cabins often when he traveled as a Georgia state employee. “We camped a bit when (son) Michael was very young, but these days we visit parks mostly for daytime hikes, etc. – or stay in cabins or lodges,” he told Woodall’s Campground Management. So, when Michael, now 43, mentioned that he had a three-day weekend in April, the Buckners “jumped at the chance” to go to Amicalola Falls State Park north of Atlanta. “It was fairly short notice and they had no two-bedroom cabins left, but we took a three-bedroom (even though it was bigger than we needed),” Buckner recalled. During his stay, he discovered several Bibles in his cabin. So began an impromptu vacation that would evolve into a national news event. Buckner, former president of the American Atheists and current southern director for the Council for Secular Humanism, complained to the park management, and the Bibles were subsequently removed. Shortly later, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced that the Bibles would be restored to all cabins and lodges and he added that materials from other religions could also be displayed in the park properties but that he couldn’t guarantee their safety. The two sides are currently in somewhat of a holding pattern. Buckner shared his side of the ordeal.
WCM: Walk us through your discovery of the Bible in your cabin room.
Buckner: We were, I want to emphasize, not looking for church/state violations. If there had been only one Gideons Bible there, we might well not have even noticed it. But as we put a few items in drawers for our brief stay, we ran across more and more Bibles in every room of the cabin. There were seven full Gideons Bibles (Protestant KJV) and two Gideons New Testament plus Psalms and Proverbs (one of those in Spanish) – nine Bibles in all – in our cabin. The number of Bibles is not really important to the constitutional problem – but it did improve the chance we’d notice.
WCM: Did you open the Bible in your room?
Buckner: Of course. I'm always interested in Bibles, whether these were the older KJV that, for example, including a reference to drinking one's own "piss" in Isaiah 36:12, or the newer KJV with the language cleaned up slightly. (The ones we found were all of the older variety.) And in all nine, the infamous – at least to atheists – verse in Psalms 14:1, declaring that we're fools and corrupt, etc., was featured (my Spanish is almost nonexistent, but I could make out the outrageous insults nevertheless).
WCM: Why all the fuss?
Buckner: Individual American citizens are completely free to hold with such opinions or not, of course. But state-owned parks must not favor Protestants or Catholics, atheists, Mormons, or Muslims, thus protecting everyone's religious liberty. The Georgia Constitution is actually clearer even than the U.S. Constitution: "Separation of church and state. No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution."–Paragraph VII, Section II, Article I.
WCM: Then what happened?
Buckner: I only talked face to face with the clerk at the desk at Amicalola when we checked out – I stacked up all nine books on the counter and asked that the manager be advised of my objection to them. The lodge/park manager, Lori Van Sickle was quite gracious and reasonable on the telephone and promised to refer my complaint to the Georgia DNR – and she did. A week or two later, I got a telephone call from GDNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson, who advised me, most professionally and cordially, that the Bibles were all being removed from the parks, at least for now, and my complaint was being referred to the Georgia attorney general. He promised to "keep me in the loop," but I have not heard back from him or anyone else at Georgia DNR since. Gov. Nathan Deal announced at a press conference the day after I heard from Bryson that he was directing that the Bibles be returned to cabins and lodge rooms in our state parks.
WCM: How do you think this ordeal with the state of Georgia will play out?
Buckner: I don't know. The right answer – the one I quietly suggested at the beginning – is to keep state government and our state parks out of the religion business. The cultural and natural preservation and recreation mission of the parks is an important one, and I don't think turning state park cabins into battlegrounds over religion is wise or constitutional. I don't plan to give up on reaching the right outcome if a way can be found to do that.
WCM: For background, tell me the intellectual process you went through on your way to becoming an atheist.
Buckner: I'm happy to give you a very short answer about a 40-plus-years- long process – but it honestly isn't relevant. My personal goals in life include promoting atheism, but I emphatically don't want state government to do so. Reading, talking, observing, taking courses, etc., led me, long ago, to the firm (though still tentative) conclusion that humanity and our physical universe make much more sense if seen as strictly natural. Gods appear to be inventions of man and culture, not real. I'd be happy to provide a reading list for anyone who wants to know more about atheism.
WCM: With Obama in the White House now in his 5th year, how has this impacted the separation of church and state movement?
Buckner: Administrations come and go, in Washington and in Atlanta, but secularism has been one of the key American ideas since our founding in the 1780s. Violations of church/state are common but dangerous.
WCM: We read that the U.S. is no longer a Christian nation. What are your thoughts on that?
Buckner: The U.S. is not a Christian nation, except in terms of a label a majority of its citizens use in various ways. It has not ever been a Christian nation, but is instead a free country, for Christians and everyone else. (A majority of us are females, but we don't refer to the U.S. as a female nation.) Anyone really interested in secularism and the false idea that we are or should be a Christian nation is invited to read our book, “In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty.”
About American Atheists
Since 1963, American Atheists has been the premier organization fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. American Atheists was born out of a court case begun in 1959 by the Murray family, which challenged prayer recitation in the public schools. That case, Murray v. Curlett, was a landmark in American jurisprudence on behalf of our First Amendment rights.
More recent, American Atheists has filed suit against the IRS to challenge the special treatment given to churches in the Tax Code.
And the organization is seeking to hire a Washington, D.C.-based public policy director to take a leadership role in the development and implementation of public policy activities.