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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)

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