This was the scene in front of the Baxter County Courthouse in Mountain Home, Arkansas last year:
It’s a giant Nativity display, with what appears to be Santa Claus and a Christmas tree thrown in for good measure.
By now, we all know the rules for how this works: You can’t *just* promote Christianity with your holiday displays on government property. Either other groups can put up displays or no one gets to. And that’s exactly what the Appignani Humanist Legal Center said to County Judge Mickey Pendergrass in a letter sent last year:
… the elaborate courthouse display amounts to a monument to Christianity, and is therefore a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. We hereby demand that the county promptly remove it and provide assurances that no similar display will be erected in the future.
There was another alternative, though. A local resident asked to put up a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner, which you’d think would be allowed provided that person went through the proper channels… but it was rejected by the judge:
The judge said he rejected a citizen request for the display of a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner on the courthouse grounds because he believed making the courthouse available for any and all requests for occasional exhibits would result in “hundreds” of displays.
Yes… Yes it would. That’s exactly how this works.
But Pendergrass wasn’t having any of it:
Pendergrass said… he will take no action in response to the letter without consultation from legal representatives for the county and the Association of Arkansas Counties. He said Baxter County is apparently among a declining number of counties that permit nativity scene displays on publicly-owned property.
He said that last part as if it were a bad thing… and what does he think the lawyers are going to tell him? To ignore the Constitution? To give them a high-five in the name of Jesus?
He never responded to the AHA’s letter.
But last month, Baxter County decided to lease out the “North West Corner of Baxter County Courthouse” to the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce for a buck. And guess what? On that corner, there’s another Nativity scene. And the lease only lasts two months, through January 15.
Isn’t that convenient…?
JT Eberhard also points out that there have indeed been other banners on the courthouse lawn over the past year:
So when County Judge Pendergrass said “no banners”, what he meant was no banners for those wishing people a happy something that isn’t Christmas.
Now, the American Humanist Association has filed a lawsuit against the judge and the county. Dessa Blackthorn is the local plaintiff:
“I’ve been asked by a group of people, who wish to remain anonymous, to represent them in trying to fight for equality on this courthouse property,” Blackthorn told The Bulletin.
“Now, people are getting involved in trying to take care of this matter and, hopefully, you know, maybe next year we’ll be able to see the Happy Winter Solstice banner on this corner,” Blackthorn said. “Maybe not this corner, but perhaps that corner. There are four corners, and everybody can share this.”
She contends the issue is about equality. “Nobody wants to take anything away from anybody,” Blackthorn said. “We want everybody to be able to represent themselves and show what they believe during this holiday season, because December has a lot of different holidays. … Let’s all show what we believe here.”
That’s a damn brave thing to do, representing other atheists who may not want to go public about this issue out of fear of retaliation.
Pendergrass has no business being a judge when his own judgment is so impaired by his faith. This whole case is just proof of that.
The lawsuit won’t be resolved in the next day or two, but a victory could set the stage for future displays. It’s just unfortunate it takes this much work to convince government officials to do the right thing. We can’t trust them to do it on their own.
(via WWJTD. Portions of this post were published earlier)