The American Humanist Association has written officials in Mountain Home to object to the Christian nativity scene on the lawn of the Baxter County Courthouse.
The letter, with numerous court citations, says that the nearly exclusive Christian display is an unconstitutional establishment of religion and should be removed. The letter says “exclusive Christian nativity scenes” have been erected at the courthouse for 15 years. The letter — to the county judge, Mountain Home mayor and a local lawyer, — notes that the display does include a figure of Santa Claus and a Christmas tree. But the letter commented:
The presence of the small Santa Claus and Christmas tree, which are both Christmas symbols, are similarly insufficient to negate the endorsement of Christianity inherent in the county’s display here. Baxter County’s display, like the display in Allegheny and unlike the display in Lynch, focuses almost exclusively on the nativity scene, and it still relates to Christianity even in the two non-nativity references. The display in Lynch featured primarily secular elements whereas the display here consists primarily of Christian elements, making it more like the unconstitutional display in Allegheny.
I’ve sought comment from County Judge Mickey Pendergrass. The humanist group wants a response by Jan. 10. I spoke with a representative of the organization and mentioned the successful ACLU-backed lawsuit by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers that opened Christmastime display to a Freethinkers’ winter solstice display along with the Nativity scene erected there each year by a nonprofit group. He said an opening of public property to multiple displays is often a way to resolve disputes such as the one in Baxter County.
UPDATE: County Judge Pendergrass responded to me by e-mail. He says the display is indeed the county’s responsibility. He said Rick Spencer was likely included on the letter because his family owns and maintains the creche. Pendergrass said the scene had been allowed on the lawn since long before he became judge, probably more than 20 years. He said he wouldn’t comment on the letter itself. But he volunteered: “It was, though, probably in response to my turning down any other displays of banners of any sort along with the creche. If anything changes, I will keep you in mind.”
UPDATE II: I spoke with Rick Spencer, who said the Nativity scene once graced his office, but he gave it to the county years ago. He still stores it because the county lacks space. He said the display included non-religious figures, which, by his reading of court precedent, complies with the law. But he also said he’d volunteered to represent the county for free if a challenge was filed. He said the presence of other messages was a decision for the county to make, however, not him. He said he understood atheist groups had sought a platform to promote their ideas.
The group’s news release follows. It supplied the photo of the display. Here’s a link to the letter sent to people in Baxter County.
A persistent history of placing a Christian nativity scene on the lawn of the Baxter County, Arkansas courthouse is being challenged as unconstitutional by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Representing a county resident, the legal center sent a letter yesterday to county officials demanding “that the county promptly remove it and provide assurances that no similar display will be erected in the future.”
The north central Arkansas county has been placing exclusive Christian nativity scenes on the courthouse property in Mountain Home, AR for approximately 15 years. Making clear that the use of government property for exclusive religious displays violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the letter includes a photograph of the display showing “a level of authenticity that would impress any Christian congregation.”
“This kind of display was determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. legal system a long time ago,” said Appignani Humanist Legal Center attorney Monica Miller. “I hope that local officials will act appropriately and remove the display and promise to not bring it back as an exclusive government religious display.”
The letter asks for a reply by Jan. 10, 2014.
Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, DC, the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other non-religious Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming philosophy of humanism, which—without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.