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December 6, 2011

Courthouse nativity scene draws fire

Freedom From Religion group protests display in letter

Athens — The nativity scene on the southeast corner of the Henderson County Courthouse lawn has drawn a protest in the form of a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization based in Madison, Wis.

The scene, which has been displayed at the location since the 2008 season, is placed there each year by Keep Athens Beautiful.

County Judge Richard Sanders said the scene is in keeping with the tradition of Christmas celebrations in the area, and is just part of the decorative effort done around the courthouse each year.

“The nativity scene is part of our history in America, and I would think the vast majority of the people living in Henderson County would enjoy coming by and taking a look, not only at that scene, but the other things that are on the courthouse lawn during the Christmas holidays,” Sanders said.

The letter, dated Dec. 1, was addressed to the County Commissioners from Stephanie Schmidt, Staff Attorney for the Foundation. It begins:

“I am writing on behalf of a concerned area resident and taxpayer, as well as other Texas members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who object to the erection of a nativity scene on Henderson County property.”

The letter alleges that the nativity scene is the only seasonal display on the grounds which actually have scenes on each corner dedicated to aspects of the holiday season.

“It is unlawful for the county to maintain, erect, or host this nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing on religion,” the letter contends.

Several instances of case law are cited in the text supporting Schmidt’s argument. The letter concludes with a request that the Commissioners Court take immediate action to insure that no religious displays are on city or county property.

“County Attorney Clint Davis is looking into the matter, and we will look at sending them an answer going forward,” Sanders said. “Right now, we’re in the process of looking up the cases that the letter we received mentioned.”

Sanders said the nativity scene has received numerous compliments since it was added to the courthouse Christmas array a few years ago. He said he had not personally heard from anyone who disapproved of the display.

“I know the other night during the Christmas parade, how many people were walking around the grounds looking at the different items we have on the courthouse lawn. And you could see the festive-type environment for the citizens,” Sanders said. “I think everybody enjoys it.”

In January, 2009, not long after the first appearance of the scene, the Athens Review printed a letter to the editor that expressed a positive view of the display.

“To the kind folks responsible for the beautiful nativity scene on the courthouse lawn, I salute you for a job well-done. The nativity scene on our courthouse lawn is the best I’ve seen.” the letter read.

In contrast, the FFRF letter contends that the courthouse lawn is not the place for the Christian-themed depiction of the Christ child, Mary and Joseph and shepherds.

“There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely-placed. Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for some religions over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths, and no religion, to support a particular expression of worship.”

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