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9/18/2003

News > News

Mickey's rock

 

The American Heritage Foundation Rock is big, bulky and heavy. It took seven workers six hours to move the two-ton block of granite from the curb of the south entrance of the Polk County Administration Building into the lobby, where three hours before its unveiling Sept. 11, it is hidden underneath a blue sheet, forming a peak at the top almost eight feet in the air. Natural light and two American flags draped over its sides give the monument a kind of glow, like a spaceship on the launching pad ready for liftoff.

Not far away, the monument's founder is busy giving last-minute directions to a small group of volunteers. His name is Mickey Carter, a 68-year-old Georgia native who is the pastor of the Landmark Baptist Church in Haines City, a retirement community about halfway between Kissimmee and Bartow, where the Polk County Administration Building is located. Landmark Baptist sits on a sprawling campus that also includes the Landmark Christian Elementary School and the Landmark Christian High School, home of the Patriots. Carter's congregation also supports the Landmark Baptist Bible College, which moved into a beautiful 10-story, Mediterranean-style building a half-mile from the campus several years ago. About 150 students are enrolled there.

Carter is tall but walks slightly hunched over. He wears his gray hair slicked straight back and prefers to carry a handkerchief in the left breast pocket of a gray, two-piece suit. His picture and comments have appeared in newspapers from Tampa to Orlando. But when I approach him to ask if he is the monument point-person, he is modest, almost humble. "I'm the one getting all the blame, if that's what you mean," he says in a soft drawl.

The finger-pointing has to do with what has been inscribed on Foundation Rock, namely the Ten Commandments. In churches and temples across the country, those 10 thou-shall-nots can be embroidered on the back of every pew and tattooed on the forehead of every parishioner. But in a public building in the new millennium, they tend to blur the lines between religion and government.

"The problem with displaying [Foundation Rock] in a [public] building is that the Ten Commandments represent the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than U.S. civil law," says David Bossman, director of the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies, and professor in the department of religious studies at Seton Hall University. "I regard the placement of this sculpture as an example of naive religious imperialism. It's naive to think that these commandments are the foundation for the U.S. legal system, even though they articulate general principles of law common in many societies."

Earlier this month, as cameras from CNN and Fox News rolled, workers hauled away another two-ton granite monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building. That one was dubbed Roy's Rock after Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, a political opportunist who defied a federal court order, the Alabama attorney general and his fellow eight justices to remove the monument. "I will never, never deny the God upon which our laws and country depend," Moore said. In 1995, he rode a controversy involving the Ten Commandments in his circuit courtroom to the chief justice position. The Christian God is popular in the Crimson Tide state; in a recent poll, 77 percent of Alabama residents say they approved of the placement of the Ten Commandments in the judicial building.

Roy's Rock, like Foundation Rock, also presented historical information other than the Ten Commandments. Each one of its 14 quotations, from sources like the Pledge of Allegiance to the National Anthem, mentions God or a creator. On the left-side panel, for example, a quotation from James Wilson, a Pennsylvania congressman who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped write the Constitution, reads, "Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is divine."

Among the 16 documents inscribed in the Polk County monument are excerpts from the Magna Carta, the 13th century agreement that bound the King of England to common law; Hammurabi's Code, a list of laws decreed by the ancient Babylon king; the Code of Justinian, a 535 A.D. compilation of Roman law, which became the legal foundation for western Europe; the Bill of Rights; and the Florida Constitution.

It was elementary that the media would turn out in Polk County to see the difference between the two monuments -- if for no other reason than to anticipate whether Bartow, named for a Confederate general who died in the First Battle of Bull Run, would become the next stand-off between Evangelicals and libertarians. I counted 10 camera crews, six photographers and three print reporters in the audience. This being Patriot Day, as decreed by George W. Bush, most of the visitors were dressed in some variation of red, white and blue.

About 20 minutes before the unveiling, a woman's voice came over the loudspeakers, directing people to the second and third floors, where they could peer down at the monument. The lobby, according to a posted sign, was supposed to accommodate only 210 people. About 10 minutes before the unveiling, the same voice told the audience that no one else would be allowed in the building. Television monitors were set up in the parking lot for the overflow crowd.

Reverend Carter took the podium and asked for a moment of silence for the "victims and heroes of September 11." The Polk County Sheriff color guard presented arms during the Pledge of Allegiance. Lynne Briedenbach, a former Orlando and Tampa radio personality who became secretary for the Foundation Rock committee that collected $150,000 to pay for the monument, spoke for several minutes about the need for the display. Volunteers unpinned the flags from the blue sheet and folded them in a triangle. Since there were no family members available related to those who died in the New York or Washington terrorist acts, the volunteers handed the flags to several retired veterans. Megan Hendricks, a senior English major attending Landmark Baptist College, sang the Star Spangled Banner, during which the audience began harmonizing along with her.

Then, with the aid of a wooden stick, volunteers push the blue sheet off, unveiling the monument. It is a shiny brown with a replica of the Liberty Bell, shipped just in time from Italy, crowning the top. "Enjoy reading it and studying it, but don't touch it," Carter tells the crowd.

It is easy to tell where the Ten Commandments is inscribed on the granite; that's where all the photographers are huddled. It is difficult to navigate through the crowd since people from the upper floors had already begun descending into the lobby. Meanwhile, television reporters stake out territory and file reports, not forgetting to mention the Ten Commandments are "obviously controversial."

Carter and Briedenbach head to a fourth-floor room where they conduct a 10-minute press conference. When a man carrying a sign praising the Polk County commissioner and the Landmark Church tried to enter, Carter says to him, "You aren't media, are you?" The man said answers yes and is allowed to stay.

The first question, from a radio reporter, is a lollipop: Were you surprised by the turnout? "It was more than I expected," Carter replies. He adds that he liked that the crowd spontaneously sang the Star Spangled Banner. "No one asked them to do that," he says. He wants to clear up an allegation that Alabama money had been flooding into Polk County to pay for his rock. "We've gotten not one dime or penny from the people of Alabama or the situation up there."

Another reporter asked if including the other documents is an artless attempt to slip the Ten Commandments into a public building. "I don't want to get into the thought police thing," he says.

Was it a publicity stunt? "We're not interested in raising a ruckus around here," Briedenbach answers.

How come the Northwest Ordinance wasn't also included? "We needed a monument 10 times that size to fit all the documents we could have put on there," Carter says. "It wasn't for a lack of documents. We just couldn't put them all on there." Carter notes that he sympathizes with Judge Moore. "I met him years ago. He's a fine man and I appreciate what he's doing. But I'm not sure we have the same legal fight. These are two separate things."

The ceremony lacks any religious overtones. I didn't write down, nor can I recall, a single instance of God or a higher being uttered during the 10-minute presentation. I thought Carter might have passed the word to keep the unveiling secular so civil libertarians would have less ammunition in court. When I ask Briedenbach about this, she says, "All I can tell you is, nobody told me what to say."

Back downstairs, people are jockeying for position to have their picture taken next to the Ten Commandments. The Mosaic Code isn't inscribed larger or more visibly than the other documents on Foundation Rock. It is placed with the Magna Carta, The Mayflower Compact and Hammurabi's Code, facing the building's east wall, where you'll find the office of Building Permits and Inspections. Unlike Roy's Rock, which has the Ten Commandments presented like an open book on top of the monument, Foundation Rock's Ten Commandments are no more than two feet in length and a foot wide.

As Carter explains, he is less interested in politics or increasing the number of students to his Bible college than in his civic duty. "September 11 was the sparkplug for this thing," he says. "We tried to do something last September 11 but it grew too big and took too long."

I wonder why some of the county commissioners didn't share the stage with Carter during the ceremony. It is almost as if he was thrown out to the media by himself, without so much as an acknowledgement from the five male commissioners who voted unanimously to accept the donation, unveiled outside their chamber doors. I ask Randy Wilkinson, the commission's chairman, who was loitering in the lobby after a brief commission meeting. "This is from the citizens," Wilkinson says.

He is 50, and wears a jacket with jeans and loafers. He has three master's degrees, two from a Baptist seminary and one from USF. "Politicians can hog the spotlight but this is not about us. This is not a personality-pedestal thing. This is not from the government."

Wilkinson hopes the media exposure will bring business to Polk County. More likely interest in will wane. Even the ACLU, which often weighs in on legal issues involving separation of church and state, seems unsure whether it will challenge Foundation Rock in court. The organization might decide it is wiser to bypass the monument to focus on more winnable cases. "That's all very premature," says Darlene Williams, the chairperson of the Tampa ACLU.

But back in Orlando, attorney Larry Walters, who is part of the Orange County ACLU, is more cautious. "There may be ulterior motives why this monument was placed here," he says. "We have to be very careful the ACLU is not being used as a tool to re-write court decisions on this matter."

Besides, Walters says, the de-emphasis on the Ten Commandments shows America has evolved in the two short years since Judge Moore snuck his monument into the Alabama justice building. "It's already a victory for the ACLU and civil rights based on the fact that the Polk County monument was watered down so that the Ten Commandments has no greater importance than the Bill of Rights," he says.

Which is to say, Foundation Rock appears to be no big deal. No doubt civic and religious-minded people will make a pilgrimage to see it. But many won't. It isn't so much they feel a disconnect from American democracy as from phony nostalgia and tacky capitalism.

At the base on each side of Foundation Rock are the names of the four largest contributors to the monument. The T. Wayne Hill Trucking Company's name is inscribed on one side. Carter and his wife, Sonja, have their names carved into the north panel. Bill Eaton won the face with the Ten Commandments in honor of his deceased wife, Barbara. All of which says as much about our codes of conduct as anything Moses brought down from the mountain.

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