Complaint ruffles Texans’ feathers

“Don’t you know what fucking Christmas is all about?”
“Merry Christmas, you sacrilegious sons of bitches.’”
— Crank callers to FFRF office, Dec. 14, 2011

After FFRF’s letter Dec. 1 objecting to a nativity scene at the Henderson County Court House in Athens, Texas, and resistance to removing it, FFRF sent its Winter Solstice banner to go up as part of the holiday display.

A county commissioner said in a TV interview that the board “wouldn’t object to other religious displays being put up on county property.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to 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 initial complaint set off a firestorm of controversy in the area, with hundreds of people rallying to support integration of church with state. FFRF was flooded with hate mail and phone calls in what appeared to be an orchestrated campaign.

Keep Athens Beautiful is the private group that has erected holiday displays that have included secular elements. The large nativity scene complete with an angel is a relatively new addition and is located by 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.

FFRF discerned that the county created a de facto public forum by letting a private group erect the display year after year on government property.

“But even in this part of Texas it’s not the Wild West,” Gaylor wrote. “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.”

A commissioner told media it would place FFRF’s banner “when hell freezes over.”

North Carolina sheriff plays God

FFRF is awaiting a response from the Onslow County Board of Commissioners in Jacksonville, N.C., regarding Sheriff Ed Brown’s decision to violate the Constitution by distributing an overtly religious message.

Brown placed an ad in the Jacksonville Daily News on Oct. 23, 2011. The ad, signed by the sheriff himself, was addressed to “All Decent and Respectable Citizens of a Decent and Respectful Society.” The top right hand corner of the ad displays the sheriff’s official badge and seal.

The ad is a religious rant, warning “Wisdom comes from God.” Brown wrote: “Remember there are no loopholes or places of opinion in the Law of God, The Ten Commandments.”

Local complainants notified FFRF. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent an advisory letter to the County Board on Nov. 16, requesting immediate action be taken to correct this transgression.

“This letter, endorsed by the county government in the person of the sheriff, is a violation of the Constitution. The sole purpose of the letter is to proselytize, to urge people to ‘stand and be counted for the Cause of God,’ and to bring people to the ‘Truth of God,’ ” wrote Elliott.

FFRF requested that the Board of Commissioners confirm that no taxpayer funds were used for the ad.

FFRF keeps pressure on Jesus shrine

FFRF issued a formal request Nov. 22 to the U.S. Forest Service to uphold its original decision to deny the Knights of Columbus renewal of a special use permit for the Jesus shrine atop Big Mountain in Flathead National Forest, Montana.

FFRF has been involved with the case since May. The Forest Service heeded FFRF’s advice and chose not to renew the permit this summer, but under pressure from influential Christian officials, agreed to revisit the issue and take formal public comments.

Designating the shrine as a phony “war memorial” or historical place, as well as proposing legislation to “swap” the public land the shrine is on for private land is unnecessary and in direct violation of the Constitution, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

Gaylor noted that the National Register Criteria for Evaluation requires that in order to qualify for a historical place, properties “are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” The “Criteria Considerations” specifically bars “properties owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation