Top Stories No. 5: Changes to ag child labor regulations dropped

Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney (far right) poses with his father and his son.
Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney (far right) poses with his father and his son.

In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed changes to agriculture child labor regulations for kids under 16. Those rules would have put restrictions on the operation of tractors, and prohibited many animal husbandry practices such as branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.

Rural Henderson County was furious at the idea.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney, who said he learned how to drive a tractor at age 7, was one of those leading the local charge against the measure. He said working on the farm gave him “an awareness of circumstances around me. It taught me to think, and it has for everyone that has grown up in an agricultural background.”

“It gives you an awareness of the world that, in my opinion, that is lacking as we get farther away from an agrarian society,” he said.

Rural families around the country protested, and the DOL received more than 10,000 comments, nearly all negative, on the proposed rules change. Washington, D.C. heard the uproar.

On April 26, the U.S. Department of Labor announced it was dropping proposed changes.

“This ruling means that rural America will continue with its traditions of family farms and ranches, neighbors helping neighbors, and the free exercise of learning and living an agricultural way of life as we have for generations,” McKinney said after the announcement. “The circumstances associated with this way of life have helped to instill a work ethic in our children that extends well beyond their childhood.”

“This issue was a direct assault on my way of life,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the opportunity and the freedom to grow up in this very fashion, I would not be the person I am today. My life is the product of at least four generations of farmers and ranchers passing a tradition down to me. I am currently passing that same tradition down to my son and to have been prevented from doing that would have been a travesty to me.”

Congressman Jeb Hensarling said, “Working on a family farm provides youth the opportunity to gain valuable skills, earn money for education, and learn the value of hard work, character, and leadership. While it is essential to ensure the safety of all workers, decisions on who can work when and where are best left to the individual families, farmers, and ranchers of East Texas—not bureaucrats in Washington.

Atheist files lawsuit against County Judge

Patrick Greene
Patrick Greene

San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene filed a lawsuit against Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders today related to the annual nativity scene on the courthouse square.

The lawsuit was filed in San Antonio, because Greene said he does not believe he can get a fair trial in Henderson County.

In the lawsuit, Greene claims Sanders, “abused his position as judicial head of Henderson County, by giving official governmental permission to private citizens to display this Christian Nativity scene. This also violated Article 1, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution; ‘No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by lay to any religious society or mode of worship.’”

Sanders declined to comment on the lawsuit this afternoon, which is standard procedure when the county is facing litigation.

Earlier in December, Greene filed, and then quickly dropped, a lawsuit against the City of Athens because of the nativity scene. Greene dropped the lawsuit after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Bexar County District Clerk for a copy.

Greene also said he was afraid of Christian violence.

“After giving it thorough thought, I have decided that this matter of stopping Christians who are trying to make bedfellows out of church and state, is too important to let go,” he said in an email.

Greene changed the defendant in the lawsuit for strategic reasons, saying he did not think he could actually prove any money from the city actually went to support the nativity scene.

“I decided to go back to the beginning, because it was Judge Sanders himself who authorized the nativity scene to be placed on government property,” Greene said.

The furor over the nativity scene on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn began in December 2011, when the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded its removal. The uproar from that — which eventually reached national proportions — had died down by the time Greene became involved.

He became interested in Henderson County in February 2012 after watching video of a Christian rally held on the courthouse square. He sent a letter to Commissioners’ Court threatening a lawsuit if the nativity scene was not moved to private property.

The story then took its oddest twist when Greene changed his mind about the lawsuit for health reasons because he believed he was going blind.

A group from Henderson County, led by Sand Springs Baptist Church, collected $400 and sent it to the struggling Greene and his wife to help with expenses.

Greene responded by flirting with converting to Christianity, although he reverted back to being an atheist fairly quickly. Still, the atheist-helped-by-Christians story went viral, and for the second time in less than a year, Henderson County was the subject of national attention.

With the lawsuit being filed today, Greene has come full circle, back to his original position against his original foe.