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Atheist flag won't fly over Somersworth Ten Commandments monument until January

By KIMBERLEY HAAS
Union Leader Correspondent

November 30. 2017 1:35PM
An atheist and freethought flag will not fly over the Ten Commandments monument in December. The flag raising has been postponed until January. (Kimberley Haas/Union Leader Correspondent File)



This atheist and freethought flag will not be raised in Somersworth until January. (COURTESY)

SOMERSWORTH — The man who requested a display of an atheist and freethought flag next to the controversial Ten Commandments monument on city property in Somersworth says it won't happen in the month of December.

Richard Gagnon is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a Somersworth resident. He asked that a blue flag with a red "A" on it be raised to celebrate the winter solstice.

City officials agreed, and a ceremony was scheduled for Monday.

Mayor Dana Hilliard said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that as a Catholic he looked forward to standing with believers and non-believers during the ceremony, where the raising of a Peace flag representative of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths was also scheduled. But that evening Hilliard called Gagnon and told him he plans to ask the city council to declare January Diversity and Tolerance Month, and asked if Gagnon would move his request for the flying of the atheist flag until then.

Gagnon said he did not feel pressured to make the decision, but he was surprised to get the phone call.

"Basically, I am looking for my turn at the flagpole. I get it. It sounds like it would be more appropriate," Gagnon said Wednesday night.

Gagnon said his overall goal is to display the atheist and freethought flag every year, so he is willing to work with the mayor to make that happen.

Brenda Breda, an executive assistant to the city manager in Somersworth, confirmed Thursday morning that the flag will not be raised until January.

During a press conference Thursday night, Hilliard said Gagnon has the First Amendment right to have his voice heard. He said in the last 72 hours there has been a lot of debate about the issue, and condemned those on social media who attacked Gagnon, saying most of those negative comments came from people outside the city of Somersworth.

"I am proud to stand by Richard," Hilliard said. "I am not only disheartened and frustrated, but I am angered."

City Councilor Jessica Paradis said Wednesday there has been a social media backlash since it was announced that the atheist and freethought flag would be flown during December, the month most closely associated with religious holidays. She is an outspoken atheist.

"I've heard citizens express both opposition and approval. What's encouraging to me, is that this is a baby step towards acceptance of non-believers. We do make up 1/5 of the population, but no one knows it, because it's taboo to talk about," Paradis said.

Paradis said some of the councilors who voted to keep the Ten Commandments monument on city property did so because they are religious. Others were afraid how it might affect their political careers.

When city councilors voted to resurrect the monument — which has been toppled by vandals in August of 2016 — on public property in front of city hall, officials assured them it was not a violation of the separation of church and state because they were going to change the name of the property to Citizens Plaza and allow organizations to fly flags next to the monument.

The two flag poles on either side of the Ten Commandments monument were installed last year. Since then, various organizations have taken turns displaying their flags each month. The Indonesian flag and Pride flag have been on display.

The atheist and freethought flag will be on display from Jan. 2 to 31, Hilliard said.SOMERSWORTH — The man who requested a display of an atheist and freethought flag next to the controversial Ten Commandments monument on city property in Somersworth says it won't happen in the month of December.

Richard Gagnon is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a Somersworth resident. He asked that a blue flag with a red "A" on it be raised to celebrate the winter solstice.

City officials agreed, and a ceremony was scheduled for Monday.

Mayor Dana Hilliard said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that as a Catholic he looked forward to standing with believers and non-believers during the ceremony, where the raising of a Peace flag representative of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths was also scheduled. But that evening Hilliard called Gagnon and told him he plans to ask the city council to declare January Diversity and Tolerance Month, and asked if Gagnon would move his request for the flying of the atheist flag until then.

Gagnon said he did not feel pressured to make the decision, but he was surprised to get the phone call.

"Basically, I am looking for my turn at the flagpole. I get it. It sounds like it would be more appropriate," Gagnon said Wednesday night.

Gagnon said his overall goal is to display the atheist and freethought flag every year, so he is willing to work with the mayor to make that happen.

Brenda Breda, an executive assistant to the city manager in Somersworth, confirmed Thursday morning that the flag will not be raised until January.

During a press conference Thursday night, Hilliard said Gagnon has the First Amendment right to have his voice heard. He said in the last 72 hours there has been a lot of debate about the issue, and condemned those on social media who attacked Gagnon, saying most of those negative comments came from people outside the city of Somersworth.

"I am proud to stand by Richard," Hilliard said. "I am not only disheartened and frustrated, but I am angered."

City Councilor Jessica Paradis said Wednesday there has been a social media backlash since it was announced that the atheist and freethought flag would be flown during December, the month most closely associated with religious holidays. She is an outspoken atheist.

"I've heard citizens express both opposition and approval. What's encouraging to me, is that this is a baby step towards acceptance of non-believers. We do make up 1/5 of the population, but no one knows it, because it's taboo to talk about," Paradis said.

Paradis said some of the councilors who voted to keep the Ten Commandments monument on city property did so because they are religious. Others were afraid how it might affect their political careers.

When city councilors voted to resurrect the monument — which has been toppled by vandals in August of 2016 — on public property in front of city hall, officials assured them it was not a violation of the separation of church and state because they were going to change the name of the property to Citizens Plaza and allow organizations to fly flags next to the monument.

The two flag poles on either side of the Ten Commandments monument were installed last year. Since then, various organizations have taken turns displaying their flags each month. The Indonesian flag and Pride flag have been on display.

The atheist and freethought flag will be on display from Jan. 2 to 31, Hilliard said.


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