Wisconsin-based non-profit calls for Athens nativity scene to come down

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by CRAIG CIVALE

WFAA

Posted on December 7, 2011 at 11:32 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 8 at 1:43 PM

ATHENS, Texas - The signs of Christmas are everywhere in downtown Athens.

Lights, trees, and Santa and his reindeer line the streets. But it's the nativity scene on the lawn at the county courthouse that has caused concern.

"I just don't understand it, to be honest with you," said Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders. "I'm just confused about it."

Sanders says residents haven't complained. The issues were brought up by the Freedom From Religion foundation, a Wisconsin non-profit group  who sent a letter to the county this week, calling the display unconstitutional and demanding it come down.

"I'm an old country boy, you come to my house looking for a fight, you're going to get one," said County Commissioner Joe Hall. "That's from the bottom of my heart."

There's no confusing how Hall feels. He says the county isn't budging.

"We'll remove it when hell freezes over," Hall said. "It's not going to happen."

Henderson County doesn't own the nativity scene. It has been put up for more than a decade by volunteers from the Keep Athens Beautiful group.

Commissioners say they wouldn't object to other religious displays being put up on county property, but they've never been asked.

If it is open to all faiths, then the Freedom from Religion foundation tells News 8 it wants to put it's own sign at the courthouse. One that reads, in part, "That there is no God, no devils, no angels or heaven" and that, "Religion hardens the heart and enslaves minds."

It's happened before.

The same sign was put up at the capital building in Washington state back in 2008. The same group, the Freedom From Religion foundation, got it posted right next to another nativity scene. The sign brought out angry protesters there, and county officials believe it would bring out the same anger, having an outsider forcing their hand.

"I would be interested if a person from Henderson County approached me, wanting to put up something on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn," said Judge Sanders. "I don't want someone from Wisconsin asking us to do something."

Their hand may be forced for them.

The Supreme Court has ruled against nativity scenes on government property in the past, but it seems clear, it's a fight county officials are ready to take on.

"I ain't gonna back down," Hall said. "I haven't and I won't."

E-mail ccivale@wfaa.com

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