FFRF aghast at Tenn. county’s official live nativity scene

1Hardemancounty

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is astonished at a Tennessee county's unconstitutional weeklong official live nativity scene.

A concerned local resident informed FFRF that Hardeman County is coordinating and sponsoring a weeklong live nativity. The resident reports that the live nativity is occurring on the square on Main Street this week (Dec. 18-Dec. 22). Elected officials are reportedly participating as re-enactors.

Hardeman County Mayor Jimmy Sain was quoted in a recent news story about the event: "Christmas has become so commercialized, and in Hardeman County we want everybody to realize what the true meaning of Christmas is and about Jesus' birth."

It is unlawful for Hardeman County to maintain, erect, or host a live nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion, FFRF asserts. The Supreme Court has ruled it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the focus of a display on government property.

"In Allegheny County v. ACLU of Pittsburgh (1989), the Supreme Court held that a county government's crèche displayed in the county courthouse was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert writes to Sain. "The court further determined that the placement of the crèche on the grand staircase of the county courthouse contributed to its illegality because 'no viewer could reasonably think it occupies this location without support and approval of the government.' Moreover, the court found that the nativity scene 'sen[t] an unmistakable message that [the county] supports and promotes the Christian praise to God that is the crèche's religious message.'" 

Displaying an inherently Christian message unmistakably sends the message that Hardeman County endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display. When the county shows the manger scene depicting the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, it signals the government's approval of Christianity, FFRF contends. This excludes the nearly 30 percent of citizens who are not Christian, including the 23 percent of Americans who are nonreligious.. Organizing and hosting a live nativity scene sends the exclusionary message to these nonbelievers and non-Christians that they are outsiders in their community.

Furthermore, Sain's statement about the true meaning of the season is evidence of a religious purpose for the county's live nativity, which is also unconstitutional. Hardeman County "may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus," to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

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

"The real reason for the season is the Winter Solstice and customs celebrating it for millennia that far predate Christianity," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But in any case, a mayor may not misuse his office to promote his personal religious beliefs."

FFRF insists that Hardeman County take immediate steps to stop this sort of practice in the future. FFRF also expressed concern for the welfare of animals corralled into this over-the-top First Amendment violation.

FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with 30,000 members across the country, including over 350 members in Tennessee. FFRF's purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo via coverage on WBBJ

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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