A new addition to the Henderson County Court House is on its way to "confused" Athens officials. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent its Winter Solstice banner to go up as part of the holiday display in Athens, Texas.
County Commissioners stated in an interview with WFAA that they "wouldn't object to other religious displays being put up on county property."
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Henderson County Attorney Clint Davis: "In response to the recent Commissioners' statements indicating this is a public forum, we note that we plan to erect a display near the nativity scene. We have a local resident who has offered to put the display up on behalf of our County members."
FFRF's colorful banner (see photo below) reads:
"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."
Keep Athens Beautiful is a private group that in the past has erected holiday displays that included secular elements. The large nativity scene complete with an angel is a relatively new addition and is located on one of the four corners of the courthouse lawn. It is lit at night and isolated from the other decorations.
"The nativity is not integrated into an overall holiday display. Anybody walking by is going to say, 'Hmmm. This is a Christian government building. I’m not welcome here if I’m not Christian,'" said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF sent a series of letters to Henderson County officials starting on Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, which included an open records request on Dec. 7 regarding any permits and policies the County may have employed or obtained. Officials have ten business days to provide a response.
FFRF acted on this Constitutional violation after taking complaints from area residents offended by Henderson County's blatant support of Christianity.
"When the County hosts this manger scene, which depicts the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, at the seat of its government, it places the imprimatur of the County government behind the Christian religious doctrine," noted Gaylor.
Since making its initial complaint, FFRF has learned that the County has created a de facto public forum by allowing a private group to erect this display year after year on government property.
"But even in this part of Texas it's not the Wild West. The County may not engage in content-based discrimination by allowing only Keep Athens Beautiful to erect a pro-Christian display. It must adopt a written even-handed policy and reasonable rules. That means 'finding room at the inn' for us nontheists, for Festivus Poles or the Flying Spaghetti Monster," said Gaylor.
FFRF is a state/church watchdog located in Madison, Wis. with 17,000 members nationwide including over 800 in Texas.
Pictured: FFRF Staff and Volunteers with the banner that was sent to Athens (Photo by Andrew Seidel)