An East Texas county is denying an atheist organization's request to display an anti-religious banner on the courthouse lawn this Christmas.
In fall 2011, the Henderson County Courthouse Nativity scene gained national attention when the Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded the county take the display down or let them put their own display up.
Last December, a banner paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was placed on the courthouse lawn. It read "there are no Gods" and that "religion is but myth."
Just minutes later, Henderson County deputies took the banner down. Soon after, the Freedom From Religion Foundation started fighting to put it back up. A formal request to display the banner was submitted to the county earlier this year. This week, that request was officially denied.
"We did not feel that the banner was consistent with the theme of Christmas and our decorations that we have enjoyed for many years," says Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders.
Henderson County Officials say none of their holiday decorations consist of banners or anything with words on it.
"We did take into consideration what type of decoration, or display, they had to offer. We did ask them questions about if they had alternative Christmas decorations or displays and the response we got was 'no'," says Henderson County Attorney Clint Davis.
In a matter of weeks, the Nativity scene display will sit on the courthouse lawn where pumpkins and hay bales are now. The other three corners of the courthouse lawn will adorn secular decor, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation says Henderson County is still violating the constitution.
"We live under a secular and Godless constitution that requires that government should not take sides in matters of religion and personal conscience," says Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Gaylor says the foundation isn't surprised the county denied their request, but they are disappointed.
"What you have here, on this corner, is the focus. It's the only focus. It's a devotional Christian scene that promotes a Christian savior is born and that you have to worship him. That's the message of the Nativity and that's not a message that the government should be giving," Gaylor says.
The county remains firm that their variety of decorations keep them in compliance with federal law.
"Overall it is a secular display. We have everything from lights to Christmas wreaths to garland... a Santa house to Santa Clause, deer, elves and gnomes," says Davis.
Judge Sanders says he and the county are very thankful for all the support they've received in their decision.
"We've gotten support from all over the United States... people that have lived here before and have contacted us about how proud they are to be from Henderson County. That really is nice," Sanders says.
"When you look at our overall objective here, which is to make our courthouse square appealing, attractive, inviting to the public... it was Judge Sanders' opinion at the end of that process and at the end of our evaluation... that the banner they had offered did not accomplish this goal," says Davis.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says the display was brought to their attention by some of their members living in Henderson County. As to what happens next, the foundation says they are looking at all of their options.
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