‘When Hell Freezes Over’ | Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 2, 2023
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‘When Hell Freezes Over’

ATHENS, Texas (CN) - An East Texas county commissioner said the county will remove a Christmas-season Nativity scene from its courthouse lawn "when hell freezes over," and the county commission delayed a decision on an atheist group's request to post a sign nearby.

Henderson County's Commissioners Court postponed the decision this week for 90 days and asked the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to reword its request, WFAA-TV reported.

In December, the group sent a letter to 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," Sanders told WFAA-TV at the time. "I'm just confused about it."

Sanders said that local residents had 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 so diplomatic.

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

In its letter, the foundation said it objected on behalf of an anonymous area resident. It cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings finding it 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 Freedom From Religion Foundation. "Anybody walking by is going to say, 'Hmmm. This is a Christian government building. I'm not welcome here if I'm not Christian.'"

Charles Caperton, the group's attorney, told WFAA-TV this week that the Nativity scene is a violation of church and state.

"Politicians have caused county governments millions of dollars in attorneys' fees for violating the Constitution, and that's what they've done," Caperton said.

Athens is about 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

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