A resident of Henderson County, Texas complained about the nativity on the courthouse lawn in Athens. The resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, called Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, who filed a formal objection with the Henderson County Commissioners’ Court. A rally was held on Saturday by local pastors to show support for county leaders who, so far, have not removed the nativity. (Gregory Rowe/Fast Draw Media)
ATHENS, Texas – The city of Athens has become the center of controversy following an anonymous complaint about the display of a Christmas nativity on the Henderson County courthouse lawn.
View Athens, TX in a larger map
In a telephone interview, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis., said, “The complaint was filed on behalf of an Athens resident, a local complainant, who was shocked to see it (the nativity) there.”
Gaylor said the chief reason for the complaint is that it is the sole focus of the Christmas display. While the nativity does take up one corner of the courthouse lawn, there are other Christmas-themed items displayed around the building, including a Christmas tree, a small building where children can visit Santa Claus, caroling figurines, a snowman, elves, deer and Santa and the reindeer in a hot air balloon.
Gaylor said the foundation was informed by county leaders that the displays are not placed by the county, but by a local non-profit beatification group, Keep Athens Beautiful.
“This has created a public forum,” she said.
The foundation requested records related to the permitting of public displays. Gaylor said the records, obtained from county officials on Friday, show no permitting process in county ordinances, no written policy regarding holiday displays on public property and no minutes from a meeting giving Keep Athens Beautiful permission to place any sort of holiday display. She also said there was no written agreement with the group for the maintenance of the display.
“They (county officials) are not in compliance with the law,” she said. “They need to get with it. They can’t reserve the courthouse square in December exclusively for Christian symbols.”
According to Gaylor, county officials have said they have no objection to other groups putting up holiday displays. In light of that, the foundation wants to place a banner near the nativity with the following text: “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.” (See story here.) She said at least one commissioner has emphatically stated the sign would not be placed and labeled that reaction as content-based censorship.
“Fifteen percent of Texans are non-religious,” she said. “Government bodies haven’t caught up with this thinking.
While she has not actually seen the display personally, she said she has seen photos of it and has been keeping up with the press coverage of the situation. Neither she nor representatives of the foundation attended a rally held Saturday by local pastors to show support for county leaders in deciding to keep the display. No protesters of the nativity were observed at the rally.
“Seculars will lay low because there is such animosity and hostility toward the complaint,” Gaylor said. “Local free thinkers are fearful of being identified in the hostile climate.”
She said the foundation has experienced a week of harassment with phone calls from residents from all over Texas.
“We’re not wanting to burn it or destroy it,” Gaylor said. “We just believe government shouldn’t endorse it.”
On Friday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders saying, in part, he could not litigate on behalf of the county should the foundation seek legal action, but he did offer to file legal briefs in support of the county to continue the display in the event the Freedom From Religion Foundation sues.
Dr. Nathan Lorick, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Malakoff located in Henderson County, along with four other pastors organized a rally Saturday to show support for county leaders in deciding to keep the display.
Several local residents who attended Saturday’s rally wore these t-shirts to show their support with local leaders in their decision to allow the nativity to remain on public property. (Gregory Rowe/Fast Draw Media)
Lorick disagrees with the foundation’s claim that the county is in violation of federal law and court precedent.
“That’s just not the truth,” he said in a personal interview. “We are well within compliance.”
Lorick said not only has the county commissioners and county judge stood together, but the whole community has come together in support of the display of the nativity.
Dr. Nathan Lorick, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Malakoff (right center) was one of the pastors who helped organize the rally held Saturday. (Gregory Rowe/Fast Draw Media)
“The whole community has come together to say, ‘No, it’s not going anywhere,’” he said.
He said the rally was to encourage people and to come together in unity and make a statement with what he called one voice that he hoped would go all across the nation.
“We believe in the Christian values and principles this nation was founded upon and we’re willing to take a stand today and say, together, ‘We need to get America back to those principles and values which made this nation so great in the first place,’” Lorick said.
He said he has not been in contact with anyone from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that there was no need for him to contact the foundation, and he doesn’t plan to contact anyone from it.
“They are passionate about their beliefs; I’m passionate about my beliefs,” Lorick said. “I love dialog, I’ve even said they can come down and we’ll have a cup of coffee and dialog about Christianity versus atheism. That’s not a problem. We’re not intimidated by those who don’t believe, and they have freedom of religion in our nation and we’ve not been exclusive.”
Lorick said most of the community supported the rally and the only people who said anything about it to him were those who, he said, did not understand the concept of the separation of church and state. He claims the separation of church and state was to protect the church from the government, not the government from the church.
The nativity is not the only holiday display up on the courthouse lawn. Children can come visit Santa. (Gregory Rowe/Fast Draw Media)
“This rally today is for believers to come together and make a statement that it’s time for Christians all over this great nation stand up,” he said.
Lorick said this complaint and the ensuing action by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as other actions of this nature, represents persecution of Christianity in the United States.
“It’s becoming more prevalent and intense and it’s time that we step up and say, ‘This nation was founded on Christian principles and we need to get back to that place and we’re not going to be silent any longer,” he said.
Portions of the rally were like a worship service as people sang hymns and prayed during much of the morning, prior to speakers explaining why the rally was taking place. (Gregory Rowe/Fast Draw Media)
He said he has received phone calls from all over the nation, even from places around the world, supporting the local rally.
“I am a Christian, unashamedly, unapologetically,” Lorick said in explaining why hold the rally in the first place. “I am called, by God, in Scripture to ‘contend earnestly for the faith,’ (Jude 3) so this is a hill to die on for me.”
He said he worries about the nation and its future, the future of Christianity and how that will affect the lives of his three young children.
“It’s not only my contending for the faith, but I’m fighting for an America to get back to the principles in which it so flourished under, so that my kids have the opportunity to worship in spirit and in truth (St. John 4:23) and freedom.”
Lorick also said this event was “a line in the sand” for Christians to stand up and lead America back the whole entire country was “not only led by, but centered on the things of God.”
He admit that Americans may not want to get back to God, but that the overwhelming response he has received does not lead him to believe that.
He also said he hopes this message spreads to other communities and more Christians will stand up for what they believe.
“We are doing this with a heart of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace, because that’s who the God we serve is,” Lorick said. “We can be bold and courageous and take a stand, we want people to know God’s love and that’s what compels us, not politics, not economics, but the things of God.”
He said those who respond negatively to the foundation’s efforts do a disservice to what the pastors in Henderson Country were trying to do with the rally – to send a positive message about their beliefs, not out of anger, but out of respectful disagreement.
Event organizers estimated 5,000 people showed up for the rally.
Cross-posted to The Northeast Texan