By Larry Hicock
July 27, 2012
On Wednesday, 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 organized 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 me, 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 huge 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 plaque, which did not stand out 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 verbally to the administration, only to be informed by a management person that the US Constitution was based on the Ten Commandments. He 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 Zoo. The only reply he received was from a city attorney. The attorney 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 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 Zoo, agrees with us. He told the press that the monument did not belong at the Zoo, even if it was legal. Therefore he had it removed the Wednesday before the scheduled Sunday protest. He stated that the Zoo was already planning to remove the plague. We salute his enlightened perspective, but must point out some conflicting facts.
Why were Mr. Piscitelli’s written complaints ignored? Why was a management person at the zoo so poorly trained that they replied to Joey’s complaint with such extreme theocratic rhetoric? Why did the City of Oakland choose to restrict their reply to Mr. Piscitelli to a poorly researched legal opinion from a city attorney? Is this issue so unimportant that it does not warrant serious legal consideration? Why did the Zoo remain silent on this issue until several days before the protest?