Athens Review, Athens, Texas

Local News

December 8, 2011

County responds

County Attorney drafts response to Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney’s complaints

Athens — Henderson County Attorney Clint Davis has written a response to a Wisconsin-based organization that is protesting the nativity scene displayed each year on the courthouse lawn.

The county received a letter Monday from Freedom From Religion foundation stating that since the manger scene is the only seasonal display on the grounds, it is an endorsement of the Christian religion, and therefore unconstitutional.

Davis’ reply informs the foundation that the manger scene is not the only seasonal display on the courthouse property.

County Judge Richard Sanders said Davis’ response was sent Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve got an array of decorations, and feel that we are in compliance with federal law,” Sanders said. “We’re not pushing any religion down anybody’s throat. These are holiday decorations we enjoy. If there was a groundswell against it in Henderson County, it would be different. But everybody I’ve talked to in Henderson County has been very positive.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt, who drafted the letter, said learning that the county has allowed Keep Athens Beautiful, an outside organization, to place the displays at the courthouse, the decorations constitute a “public forum.”

“We’re planning on seeking permission to put up our own display,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the Freedom From Religion Foundation receives complaints of illegal religious displays each holiday season. This year, 20 to 25 have come in, she estimated.

Cases have come up in the state of Washington, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, to name a few, she said.

A case in Elmwood City, Pa. has similarities to the Henderson County controversy. In that dispute, according to an Elmwood City Ledger story, FFRT sent a banner to the city this year to be included in the local holiday display.

The foundation’s website states that the banner was sent after months of correspondence between the organization and the city.

Throughout the day Thursday, as news of the Henderson County controversy rippled beyond local boundaries, representatives of various media organizations went to the southeast corner of the courthouse lawn to follow up on the story.

Meanwhile, signatures were being collected in support of the manger scene.

In another development,  Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt said his office received a report Thursday, that someone had defaced some of the figures in the display. The markings were later removed, reports said.

Malakoff First Baptist Church Pastor Nathan Lorick said a rally has been scheduled for  noon, Dec. 17, the scope of which is larger than just to support the nativity scene.

“The hope for this is to bring together as many evangelical Christians as we can in our county to say, regardless of whether they take our plastic nativity scene, they can’t take what’s in us,” Lorick said. “We want to make a statement, not just to East Texas, and to this person in this organization, but literally to the nation, that we have a group of people willing to stand for what we believe in.”

The following is the text of Henderson County Attorney Davis’ letter.

Dear Ms. Schmitt:

I am the County Attorney for Henderson County, and on behalf of Henderson County, am responding to your letter of December 1, 2011. I believe that your letter was written, based upon the incorrect factual premise that the nativity scene was the only seasonal display on county grounds.

In addition to the nativity scene, we have Santa Clauses (multiple), a Santa house, elves, wreathes, garland, trumpeters, dwarfs, snowmen, reindeer, white tail deer, Christmas Trees, Christmas lights, and a plethora of other decorations surrounding our courthouse.

I am not sure how familiar you are with Athens or Henderson County, but Athens is centrally-located in the County, and our courthouse is centrally located within the City of Athens.

These displays are secular in purpose, and placed in our County in a visible location to create a festive atmosphere for the celebration of Christmas.

As I am sure you are aware, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld these types of displays, and we believe that we are in compliance with the guidelines set forth in Lynch v. Donnelly, and the test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman by the U.S. Supreme Court.

More recently, the Supreme Court reinforced those 1980-era decisions in Salazar v. Buono, and made clear that, "the goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm." Salazar v. Buono, 130 S. Ct. 1803, 1817-20 (2010)

1
Text Only
Local News
  • 2726192_300x300.jpg Darin Karl found Thursday on Cedar Creek Lake

    The body of a 42-year-old man who had been missing in Cedar Creek Lake was recovered on Thursday.
    The drowning victim was identified as Darin Lynn Karl of Kemp. According to Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt, Karl and his nephew were fishing near Cedar Creek Country Club when the boat overturned, ejecting the men. 

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • ADR logo.tif AISD approves moving monthly meeting, additional drug testing

    Discussion on meal prices for the 2014-15 school year was pulled from Thursday's Athens Independent School District Board of Trustees agenda but other items were approved that will bring about change in the district.
    By unanimous decision, the school board approved changes to the scheduled date for its monthly meetings; additional drug testing on the high school campus and modification to the graduation policy.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 4-19 drugs.tif Prescription Drug Take Back Day April 26

    On Saturday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Athens Police Department and Keep Athens Beautiful will host the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, giving the public its seventh opportunity in four years to prevent pill abuse and theft.

    April 19, 2014 2 Photos

  • ADR logo.tif Feud between Tool VFDs extends to city council

    The two volunteer fire departments in Tool have been dueling for 11 years. The feud between the two departments started in 2003, when the citizens of Tool voted to establish Emergency Service District No. 4. According to reports, this was about the same time the Tool Volunteer Fire Department was established.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • ADR logo.tif Would Lake Athens residents suffer if city controls water?

    Members of Lake Athens Property Owners Association have been watching the dispute between the City of Athens and the Athens Municipal Water Authority uncertain of how this will affect their future.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • ADR logo.tif Hot issue

    The two volunteer fire departments in Tool have been dueling for 11 years. The feud between the two departments started in 2003, when the citizens of Tool voted to establish Emergency Service District No. 4. According to reports, this was about the same time the Tool Volunteer Fire Department was established.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • ADR logo.tif Surplus property to be moved or demolished

    Athens Independent School District purchased property at 404 Royall Street during its March school board meeting with the intent to square off property previously purchased by the district.
    During Thursday's school board meeting, a unanimous decision was made to designate the property as surplus and advertise the home to be moved or demolished.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • DSC_0077.JPG Taste of Home Cooking School

    The Taste of Home Cooking School was held Thursday at the Cain Center. Hundreds attended the events that was sponsored by Cole A/C and the Athens Daily Review.
     

    April 19, 2014 6 Photos

  • ADR logo.tif City, AMWA differ on future management of water supply

    The 57-year relationship between the Athens Municipal Water Authority and the City of Athens grew stormy in 2013 because of a disagreement over who should pay certain bills.
    The difference-of-opinion led to the Authority filing suit against the city last December, and the city responding by setting the wheels in motion that slated a May 10 election to decide whether to abolish AMWA.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • 4-18 Easter.jpg Excited and ready

    Lexie and Isabella Hawkins are excited and ready for the Kiwanis Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday, April 19 at 9 a.m. in Kiwanis Park.  Bicycles, rabbits and lots of Easter Eggs will be waiting for you. Everyone is welcome, and of course the Easter Bunny will be there.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo