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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Annual Fight Erupts Over Nativity Scene

ATHENS, Texas (CN) - A nativity scene on the lawn of the Henderson County Courthouse has drawn the ire of a Wisconsin-based state-church watchdog group, but a county commissioner says the scene will come down "when hell freezes over."

The nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter last week to Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders, demanding that the display be removed as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

"I just don't understand it, to be honest with you," said Sanders. "I'm just confused about it."

Athens is about 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

Sanders told WFAA-TV that local residents have not complained about the display, which is not owned by the county. The nativity scene has been set up by volunteers with Keep Athens Beautiful for more than a decade.

"I would be interested if a person from Henderson County approached me, wanting to put up something on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn," Sanders said. "I don't want someone from Wisconsin asking us to do something."

Henderson County Commissioner Joe Hall was not as diplomatic.

"We'll remove it when hell freezes over," Hall said. "It's not going to happen."

In its letter, the foundation said it objects on behalf of an anonymous area resident. It claims that the U.S. Supreme Court has held it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property, citing Allegheny v. ACLU of Pittsburgh, 492 U.S. 573 (1989); and Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1983).

The nativity scene is isolated in a corner of the lawn and lit at night.

"The nativity is not integrated into an overall holiday display," said Annie Gaylor, co-president of the watchdog group. "Anybody walking by is going to say, 'Hmmm. This is a Christian government building. I'm not welcome here if I'm not Christian.'"

County officials told WFAA they would not object to other religious displays being put up on county property, but they have never been asked.

In response, the foundation has asked to erect its own sign at the courthouse. It would state: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds."

"We have a local resident who has offered to put the display up on behalf of our county members," said Freedom from Religion Foundation attorney Stephanie Schmitt.

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