Top Story No. 3: Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County)

Coming in as our No. 3 Top Story of 2012 is the one story guaranteed to make everyone’s list: The nativity scene controversy. After all, it put Henderson County into the national spotlight twice.

The controversy split into separate prongs this year. The first is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which started everything in December 2011. The second is San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene. We’ll take each one in turn.

The FFRF and The Banner

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is the Wisconsin-based organization that demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn last December. Later, the foundation shifted its focus from removing the nativity to allowing one of its banners.

In April, the FFRF formally requested Henderson County commissioners allow one of its atheist banners on the courthouse lawn for this December.

The proposed banner read: “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.”

“What we are trying to do is directly counter the theology of the nativity display,” FFRF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said at that time.
They didn’t get the chance, at least not this year. In October, County Judge Richard Sanders denied the FFRF request.

County Attorney Clint Davis said, “(The banner) is merely a rant against religion. When you look at the overall goal of the county, which is to make the town center attractive through seasonal decorations, you have to ask if their banner does that.”

The FFRF wasn’t happy with the decision.

“Henderson County’s decision to deny our permit is appalling,” Gaylor said. “County officials have continually given FFRF the run-around in an attempt to stonewall our application which they had no intention of approving. Using government power to promote religion and hinder criticism of religion is tyrannical, and is precisely what our secular Constitution prohibits.”

Although the FFRF took no other action in 2012, there is a good chance the group could file a lawsuit in 2013.

“At this time we are considering legal action,” said FFRF attorney Stephanie Schmitt after the banner was denied. “Had a message of our choosing been approved, litigation would not be necessary. It was pretty obvious that no matter what we proposed, our banner – anti-religious or not, was going to be denied. They are trying to exclude any nonreligious viewpoint.”

Atheist Patrick Greene

Henderson County residents were between the FFRF uproar of last December and the banner request of April when they first heard the name Patrick Greene.

The San Antonio atheist, who is not part of the FFRF, became interested in Henderson County in February 2012 after watching video of a Christian nativity 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 for this December.

Then things got weird. Greene changed his mind because he believed he was going blind.

A group, 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, garnering the county national attention.

Greene was then quiet for nearly eight months, before bursting back onto the scene in December with a lawsuit against the City of Athens.

He said he filed against the city because the city pays Keep Athens Beautiful $10,000 annually. The lawsuit read: “These funds were partly used for the upkeep of a life size Christian Nativity display, thereby violating Article 1, Sections 6 and 7 of the Texas Constitution.”

Greene withdrew that lawsuit less than a week after it was filed when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Bexar County District Clerk for a copy. Greene also said he was afraid of Christian violence.

But to prove that you can never be sure of what Greene will do next, he closed out the year by filing another lawsuit, this time against County Judge Richard Sanders.

In that lawsuit, filed Dec. 28, 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.’”

Greene said he wants the nativity scene moved to private property.

The one thing we can be sure of in 2013, is that Patrick Greene isn’t going to just disappear.

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