In the Spotlight

News & Features
Freethinkers wage an unpopular battle
By Bob Reha
Minnesota Public Radio
August 22, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

Recently more than 300 people turned out at a public meeting in Fargo to debate the appropriateness of a religious monolith built on city property. Since the late 1950s, a plaza outside the Fargo city hall has housed a granite marker engraved with the Ten Commandments. The "Red River Freethinkers," a group that advocates the separation of church and state, have called for the relocation of the stone. The group represents a distinct minority, but is gathering a lot of attention.

A marker inscribed with the Ten Commandments, similar to this one, is the center of controversy in Fargo, N.D. The marker is located on city property next to Fargo city hall, and the Red River Freethinkers say it promotes intolerance. Similar debates are taking place in other cities across the country, including La Crosse, Wis.
(Image courtesy of Adams County for the Ten Commandments)
TWO DOZEN PEOPLE, MOSTLY RETIRED FOLKS, SIT IN THE BASEMENT of the Unitarian church in Fargo. They chat and laugh. They could be members of any church committee. But these former professors, homemakers and veterans are the "Red River Freethinkers," a collection of people who advocate using logic and facts - not faith or religion - to answer life's problems. Members of the Red River Freethinkers chapter live all across the region. Some have driven from Grand Forks and farther to be at this meeting.

About half of the Freethinkers members are retirement age.

"It's not a bunch of young radicals. A lot of the people here were very active in political issues 50 years ago," says Wesley Twombly, who chairs the Freethinkers.

At 31, Twombly is one of the youngest members of the group. The Freethinkers have gotten a lot of attention locally over their opposition to the stone marker carved with the Ten Commandments in front of Fargo's city hall. Twombly says the group is not anti-religion. They don't want the marker destroyed - just removed from public property. Members of the group believe leaving the monument on public ground is a tacit endorsement of Christianity, to the exclusion of other beliefs, and therefore a violation of the separation of church and state. Twombly says that's a dangerous thing to do, because it leads to intolerance.

"There is a case where a teacher may have failed to have his contract renewed because he taught evolution in a community where that is not popular. We're checking further into the facts on this case," says Twombly.

The Freethinkers' position and opinions have not been popular. At public meetings on the request to remove the monument, people like Karl Keane accused the group of hypocrisy.

"Our free thinkers may actually be in danger of becoming the oppressors that they so much speak against," Keane argued.

Others questioned the group's patriotism, while some, like Steve Logering, testified the Freethinkers' argument is flawed.

Tom Ebacher is co-founder of the Red River Freethinkers. He says he decided to form the group in part because of what he considered excessive focus on Christianity in the high school his daughters attended, with no acknowledgement of other religions. His two daughters have since graduated from high school, and have become atheists. Listen to his comments.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
"The argument that we can't offend anyone is ludicrous and self defeating. This very subject is proof of that. The Ten Commandments is what built this country - who we are and what we've become," Logering said.

Members of the Freethinkers admit their's is a minority viewpoint. Bill Treumann, who co-founded the group four years ago, says some young people are afraid to speak out.

"There is a real concern on the part of many young free-thinking people not to be identified because they fear economic retribution or possibly other retribution. It certainly is a realistic fear," Treumann says.

Co-founder Tom Ebacher is from Keningston, Minn. Ebacher, who is an atheist, says he's been threatened on occasion because of his beliefs.

"Twice going into a bar - because I'd written letters to the editor - people have tried to get into fights with me," says Ebacher. "I've had numerous phone calls from people either trying to convert me or telling me quite clearly that I was an idiot and I was wrong."

Ebacher says incidents like those motivate him to work for the removal of the Ten Comandments monument. To him, it's a stone with words based in religion, not governance, and therefore should not be part of a public display.

"In our society, atheists and non-believers are discriminated against in a lot of ways, and I'd like to see less of that. The city of Fargo - in this small gesture of removing these Ten Commandments - would be making a statement that all people in this community are welcome and they don't tolerate bigotry in any of its forms," Ebacher says.

Members of the Freethinkers say they will push for removal of the Ten Commandments monument from the City Hall plaza. Legal action is a possiblity. At this point the Freethinkers' request to remove the stone has come only before the city's Human Relations commission, a group with only advisory authority. The final decision on the monument rests with Fargo's elected city commissioners. It's not clear when or if that group will take action.

More coverage
  • The Ten Commandments - Religious or historical symbol?

    More Information