Arkansas Judge Defends Courthouse Creche But Forbids Atheist Sign Since It’d Open the Door to ‘Hundreds’ of Displays

This is the scene in front of the Baxter County Courthouse in Mountain Home, Arkansas:

As you can see, it’s a giant Nativity scene (with what appears to be Santa Claus and a Christmas tree thrown in for good measure).

Well, we know how the rules for this work: You can’t *just* promote Christianity with your holiday displays on government property. And that’s exactly what the Appignani Humanist Legal Center said to County Judge Mickey Pendergrass in a letter sent on Wednesday:

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 is, of course, another option. Pendergrass can just include displays from non-Christians as well. In fact, one local resident asked to put up a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner… only to have it 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 the game works. When it comes to government property, you can allow all displays or no displays. Really, the only thing you can’t do is put a “Christian-only” warning on the application.

So what’s the judge going to do now? He says he’s going to stick his fingers in his ears and pretend like nothing ever happened:

Pendergrass said Thursday 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 says 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?

JT Eberhard adds one more damning piece of evidence to the story:

The FFRF contacted Judge Pendergrass to request a list of what hoops a person must jump through in order to have erect a holiday display in reverence to their own beliefs. Pendergrass responded that because the FFRF wasn’t a private citizen that he did not have to provide that information. So a collection of residents sent a letter by certified mail to Judge Pendergrass requesting that information. They have yet to hear back, but I will let everybody know if/when they do.

Seriously, how is this man a judge? Is the bar to the Bar set exceptionally low in Arkansas? (Note: Commenters rightly point out Pendergrass does not necessarily have to be a lawyer to be a judge in his state.)

This won’t end well for Pendergrass. He’s breaking the law and he’s a goddamn judge. Even Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended for promoting Christianity with his Ten Commandments stunt… (though he later bounced back).

The important thing now is that the pressure remains on Pendergrass. We have legal groups doing what they can, but Arkansas natives would do well to write letters to their local papers and voice their complaints with elected officials.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Whitney Currie

    Why do we need to go through this EVERY x-mas? Every freaking year. It’s like a stopped calendar or something; time to put up the tree, string up the lights, oh yeah, and find the most embarrassing nativity scene to put up in front of a government building and see if anyone has the guts to stop it!

    The Constitution has not changed in this regard. It’s not going to change. Take down that ugly plastic, save some money on the lighting, and be grateful that you live in a nice warm house with glass in the windows and central heating.

  • Jeff

    But, but, but….OUR Nativity scene is different!

  • quasibaka

    Groundhog day …. only drop the IQ of everyone involved by about 70 .

  • skinnercitycyclist

    I think a lot of these displays have been going on for years (the one in the post began fifteen years ago), and it is only gradually that local people are getting brave enough to protest them. That is why every year there are a few. Of course some of them (in particular moves for prayer at meetings of governmental bodies) are freshly concocted to stick a finger in the eye of “atheists” (scare quotes because by no means all opponents of this type of public piety are non-believers), but my uninformed guess is that those cases are rarer than “ongoing tradition.”

  • Mads Andreas Elvheim

    People have to challenge it every year so Fox News can discuss the non-existing War On Christmas (TM).

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The door to hundreds of displays is already open, Your Honor. (ahem) It’s propped open with that painted plaster baby Jesus. Careful, don’t trip over it as you leave with your box of personal items.

  • 23cal

    He is a county judge, an elected position whose main job is taking care of county roads. He isn’t a judge in the legal lawyerly sense of the word. Having said that, he is dumb as a box of rocks and anyone commenting in the local newspaper would be appreciated. Thanks for running this, Hemant.

  • Guest

    Another win for the good guys! Keep up the good fight judge :)

  • JTEberhard

    We’ll see how much of a “win” it is when they wind up in court.

  • Richard Thomas

    You must hate taxpayers. Why are Christians so unamerican?

  • Guest

    Good Christian people founded this nation. Your welcome.

  • Jeff

    Please, you aren’t going to try that, are you? Really? Bring some bandages, historical facts are going to leave a serious burn….

  • Guest

    Oh, Jeff, when atheists can have a real platform, like the White House, other than just the internet, you can speak of burns…

  • Jeff

    Well, can you try that again. I’m sorry, it makes absolutely no sense. Please, stay on the topic. We enjoy good intellectual discussions here. Not random nonsense. Please, start showing FACTS of your history of “good christian people founded this nation”. We’ll start there.

  • Richard Thomas

    I thought the Christians were complaining that the president is a Muslim? Or is that just another example of you saying whatever it takes to have the appearance of a superior argument?

  • Guest

    Since when did I state he was Muslim? More atheist generalizing, hmm? Obama is clearly a noble Christian man.

    See, you’re just nitpicking and whining.

  • Sam Black

    Since when did anyone claim you stated the POTUS was muslim?

  • Guest

    “I thought the Christians were complaining that the president is a Muslim?” read more.

  • Sam Black

    So “the Christians” is a direct and solitary reference to you?

  • Guest

    Obviously

  • Sam Black

    lol…

  • cemetery

    I think you looked at the wrong numbers. This article was written in 2012 and so far, it’s held true as the Atheist population IS on the rise whether or not you want to deny it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-barber/atheism-to-defeat-religion-by-2038_b_1565108.html

  • Artor

    Ah, so you are the one & only representation of all Xians. Good to know.

  • Richard Thomas

    You must be new here. Let me be the first to inform you that we like to debate things based on facts here, as opposed to the made-up anecdotes you might be accustomed to on Christian blogs.

  • Guest

    You don’t debate. You bitch and whine about the Christian majority that makes the rules. Sorry, we can’t make everyone happy, but we try to make the majority of people happy.

  • Richard Thomas

    Your “Christian majority” is unamerican and has no place in a modern society. Be assured that we are going nowhere while your numbers dwindle every day.

  • Guest

    Oh, our numbers “dwindle”. Check out the future-predicted demographics. Atheists will never be able to outnumber Christians, let alone other religions. Besides, atheists are unfit to have any power or control, less it turns into something like Stalin’s vision. You had your chance and blew it, folks.

  • Sweetredtele

    Oh, so you think the Prime Minister of Australia is unfit for the job? Yep, I can see the Purges coming down under.

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    She’s biding her time. Obviously. :)

  • Guest

    You moron, the PM is a Roman Catholic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Abbott

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    It was a reference to Julia Gillard. You know, the atheist under whom all those terrible anti-Christian purges were carried out down under in the name of atheism. Oh, wait…

  • Guest

    No, I think someone needed to brush up on their history and you’re covering for their stupidity and arrogance.

  • Sam Black

    lol…

  • Sweetredtele

    LOLZ! Don’t make me Godwin on you.

  • Guest

    Plus, she must not have been doing a good job to get the boot and have a RC back in :)

  • Mogg

    Let’s just say that the fools who believed the then-Opposition’s campaign and voted the current guy in are now wishing they hadn’t… and it’s only been a few months.

  • Sweetredtele

    Oh, I meant Julia Gillard, of course. But you knew that because you know your history. Huh, you should have understood that’s who I was referring to. So those Purges happened exactly when during her tenure? Lolz, Someone who supports the killing of christians has resorted to Ad Hominem.

  • Sam Black

    Which “future-predicted” figures would that be? Citation?

  • Guest
  • Sam Black

    You seriously just cited the World Christian Encyclopedia.

  • Sweetredtele

    I find that interesting that you would say that with your firm grasp of history. It’s because of religion that Stalin was able to accomplish what he did. He took a populace used to the authority of the church. He then removed the church and replaced all the ritual, iconography and relics with himself and others of the party.
    I mean, It’s sorta bizarre to stick someones mummified corpse in a glass box so the faithful can pay homage. I mean it’s not like he’s a holy relic or anything. Where did they get such a bizarre idea?

  • coffeecat

    Remember, Stalin studied to be a priest. He was just more comfortable being a god.

  • Sweetredtele

    Why then I guess you support countries where the majority is not christian and christians are persecuted/killed because the majority makes the rules.

  • JTEberhard

    Laws do not exist to make everybody happy (that’s what hookers are for). But they can treat everybody equally.

  • Sam Black

    So was it the christian majority that established the constitutional rules that make this judge’s actions illegal?

  • EdmondWherever

    Sure you do. Funny how no attempt is made to make ALL the people happy, by simply allowing zero displays. The government is not the adveristing arm of your religion.

  • JTEberhard

    My welcome?

  • JTEberhard

    Some of them were Christian, but not all. Regardless, Americans, Christians, atheists, and people of all faiths, fought a war so they wouldn’t have to have a state church (like the Church of England).

    Hi, I’m 8th grade Civics.

  • Guest

    The Founding Fathers were also essentially terrorists. The “secular” Constitution is based on the words of slave owners and warmongers.

    What the FF stood for would be labeled as terrorism by today’s standards.

  • JTEberhard

    “The nation was founded by good Christians”

    “They were terrorists, slave owners, and warmongers.”

    You’ve just defined “good Christian” for us, and it’s not flattering.

  • Guest

    Nope, the Founding Fathers are a different case. I was speaking of the PEOPLE, not the FF: many of them being secular terrorists in wigs. The people who came here before them were noble Christians seeking a new home. Many of the FF, as many here agree, were atheists and slave owners.

  • Sam Black

    I’m having trouble following your line of … reasoning. Are you now saying that the FOUNDING fathers didn’t FOUND the U.S.A.?

  • Guest

    “Founding” is just a title given to some secular terrorist slave owning warmongers who signed a few papers. Their “constitution” is meaningless.

  • Sam Black

    Apparently good christian people are confused by simple contractions.

  • Guest

    You can’t deny it was the Christian majority who founded this nation.

  • Jeremiah Traeger

    Even if this was the case, in EVERY case they voted against establishing a religion. Read your constitution.

  • Guest

    When did I say I was American? Stop being such a self-absorbed American atheist.

  • Jeremiah Traeger

    When you said “this nation”. Now you’re just trolling.

  • Guest

    Ever heard of immigrants?

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    When in Rome…order pizza?

  • Jeremiah Traeger

    American immigrants live under the American constitution. You clearly said “this nation” and we are discussing an American case. I don’t know why I’m bothering to respond to a troll at this point.

  • Guest

    Because we’re both bored obviously.

  • tubi11

    I can’t believe anyone is spending so much time interacting with someone who’s too much of a spineless turd to even use a nickname, let alone identify itself.

  • Sam Black

    Hmmm… Was that the same majority that signed the Treaty of Tripoli?

    I guess you can’t deny your bad grammar.

  • Guest

    Doesn’t count. The majority of people there were secular atheists (although closeted). They don’t represent the true Christian American people at the time.

  • Artor

    Wait a minute, you just claimed that the founders were Xian, so America is an Xian nation. Now you’ve been referred to a document that explicitly says we are NOT and never have been a Xian nation, and suddenly it doesn’t matter? Which is it? Can I have the contact info for the manufacturer of your shifting goalposts?

  • Sue (Yet, She Persisted) Blue

    Some Native Americans might have a few things to say about that. They established “nations” here in America thousands of years ago, and believe it or not, they’re still around despite all efforts to pretend otherwise. Also, the pagan Norse were here 600 years before the Puritans set one buckle-shoed toe on a New World beach. The first white child born in North America was born to pagan Vikings. Also, your “Christian majority” who barged in just a couple hundred years ago like they owned the place were escaping sectarian fights with other “Christians” back in Europe. You would not recognize – or like – the Puritanical religion practiced by the folks on the Mayflower or Cotton Mathers’ witch-burning fanatics. Despite your 1950s “Leave it to Beaver”-style fantasies, America is not some sort of God-blessed haven carved out of a pristine wilderness by Jesus expressly for his white, clean-shaven European sheep.

  • Jim Chambers

    Most of the founding fathers were deist or theist, not necessarily christian. They understood religion was a terrible way to rule, that’s why the first amendment, freedom of religion, was first.

  • evodevo

    Do not feed the Troll …. that is all.

  • Ella Warnock

    You’re.

  • http://bearlyatheist.wordpress.com/ Bear Millotts

    That could be parsed so many ways:

    Good Christian people founded this nation.

    Partially true. Some good Xians and some bad Xians founded this nation. Some nom-Xians founded this nation, too.

    Good!

    Christian people founded this nation.

    Yes, some Xian people founded this nation, it’s true. But some non-Xians did, too.

    Good Christian!

    People founded this nation.

    Yes, this is more true than the previous interpretations. People did found this nation. All kinds of people, complex people who differed politically, economically, socially, and, yes, religiously.

  • Matt Ranson

    Just like Thomas Jefferson, right?

  • Guest

    It’s also very assuming to presume I was an American. Are you really so bigoted? Why are American atheists so self-absorbed?

  • diogeneslamp0

    How do you know WE’RE American? Why are Christian residents of America so fucking stupid?

  • Sue (Yet, She Persisted) Blue

    Because nothing says “piety” like insisting that Jesus was born on a pagan holiday, despite all evidence to the contrary. Only…why oh why couldn’t the Grand High Creator of the Universe pick a day that wasn’t already being used by those filthy tree-worshipping pagans?

  • Bdole

    What does the troll say?
    dumb dumb dumbdumbdumbdumbdumbdumb dumbdumbdumbdumb

  • Lark62

    Who was it that said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s….”

    The Constitution, the governing document of our nation, says that the government can’t advance one religion or religious viewpoint. The government must be neutral towards religion.

    Now, are you gong to follow Jesus’s commandments, or not.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    What? The “good guys” are the ones who are against the constitution of the United States and are the ones who don’t believe in equality for all citizens? Do you really want to live in a Theocracy?

    Guest (I mean Chickenshit who can’t even log in with a pseudonym) you are just illustrating why so many people are coming to see you Christians as the self-righteous bullies that you are.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Seriously, how is this man a judge? Is the bar to the Bar set exceptionally low in Arkansas?

    Well, let’s check that out. http://www.baxtercounty.org/judge.php says:

    The County Judge is the chief executive officer for county government. The Constitution of the State of Arkansas provides for the election of the County Judge to a two-year term of office with the requirements that he/she be at least 25 years of age, a qualified elector, and a resident of the county. In the event of a vacancy in office, the quorum court fills the vacancy by appointment, the appointee serving until the next general election, when a successor is elected.

    It seems that the BAR has nothing to do with it. There is no educational or other professional requirement whatsoever. All one has to do is be at least 25 and a resident. Any high school dropout could get the job as long as they can get enough votes.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Thank you, Rich. That clears up a lot. So he’s actually like a county supervisor or manager, and he does not necessarily know anything about law. That would explain his saying…

    …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 essentially said, “I am not a lawyer, so I will have to talk to one before I do anything.”

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    He essentially said, “I am not a lawyer, so I will have to talk to one before I do anything.”

    Which in all honesty is not a bad instinct for a government official to have. I’d rather they check with a lawyer to understand the legal landscape before sounding off or acting rashly.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Yes, it is the wise thing for him to do. And when the lawyers advise him to not put the nativity scene on government property next year so to avoid a costly lawsuit, he can say hey it’s not his fault, the county lawyers told him to.

  • evodevo

    Same in Ky – and probably West VA, etc. County judge is an elective administrative position, left over from the 1800’s. Absolutely NO law degree required. They also have a LOT of local power, especially in Appalachia, over the county budget (insert graft reference here), politics, etc. If you want your road maintained, or your cousin employed by the county, you do NOT question anything the county judge does. And many of them are essentially your local car dealer or whatever – absolutely NO education required.
    The one in my county is an OK guy, but like with a monarch, there is no guarantee you will get a good one.

  • Simon Howard

    Here’s his Twitter account:

    https://twitter.com/mickeymd53

    Full of right-wing partisan anti-Obama / anti-Obamacare / Global Warming denial stuff. Not particularly surprising given the story, but does it bother anyone else that this guy is a *Judge*?

  • diogeneslamp0

    Judge, you make Christians look like criminals and scofflaws. Is there any Christian left in America who will obey its laws and constitution? Or do no rules apply to these gangsta thugs?

  • Derrik Pates

    In picking cherries, apparently the esteemed judge missed “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s”. Such an inconvenient one.

  • John

    FFRF FTW

    Love all the letters they send out at this time a year. They could just send form letters stating the same thing.

    Legal situation has not changed from last year. Precedent has been set multiple times.

  • Sue (Yet, She Persisted) Blue

    Not only is that display glaringly unconstitutional, it’s also among the top ten most awkward, butt-ugly Nativity scenes ever to besmirch a public space. Who designed that atrocity, and what were they huffing? A beer-can festivus pole would be more attractive and tasteful.

  • John

    Roy Moore
    Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court

    Founder & President Emeritus of Foundation for Moral Law

    The Foundation for Moral Law exists to restore the knowledge of God in
    law and government and to acknowledge and defend the truth that man is
    endowed with rights, not by our fellow man, but by God!

    Wow.

  • http://atheist-faq.com Jasper

    If had the money, I’d start a foundation to restore the knowledge in law that unicorns give us our rights.

  • Daniel Chapman

    I live in Mountain Home, AR. Since reading this story (I first heard about it from the AHA via Facebook, and not the local newspaper, which I read later) I’ve been having some, let’s say, interesting discussions on Facebook about it. I thought I’d give everyone a little extra info on the area and the nativity scene in particular.
    Every year, before the annual Christmas parade, they have a special presentation in front of the court house, dedicating the nativity (it looks a little different every year), followed by a prayer, and then some church choir sings a couple of Christmas Carols. Or at least that’s how they use to do it. I haven’t been to one of these “dedications” in years. I use to work at the local newspaper here, and watched the dedication from the second floor of the building, waiting for the parade to start. This has been going on for about 15 years now. The sad part is that Pendergrass had a very easy way out, but obviously was to stupid to see it. Right across the street from the court house is a veterans plaza. A very large open space with plenty room for the nativity, as well as a dozen more religious displays.
    That is, if there were that many here. This area very prominently Christian, I’d say 99% or so, with just a hand full of other religious groups, if that many. I only know of a few atheists such as myself in the area, as well as a few pagan believers. It’s also a retirement area; a large segment of the population here is over 65, and are from larger cities like Chicago, Dallas, etc. For a long period of time, our nickname use to be “little Chicago”. It is also primarily white, although that is slowly changing. When I was a kid, I could count the number of African Americans living in the area on one finger. Now, we are getting much more diverse. Many Latinos, Asian and African Americans have moved into the area, I’m happy to say.
    I never really cared about the nativity display. To me they were just a bunch of religious plastic sitting in front of the court house, and as long as no one else cared about them being there, then neither did I. Now that someone has spoken out about the nativity scene, I find myself being a weird sort of spokesman for the AHA to my friends. I’ve had to explain the AHA’s position, my own position (why I didn’t care before, but now i do), and why I support the AHA. How we are not persecuting Christians (yup,I had that come up), how we are not trying to stop people from putting up their own nativity scenes in their own yards, and ultimately, how the court is going against the constitution, in particular the separation between church and state.
    This isn’t going to be pretty, but ultimately I imagine the court will relent and promise not to put up the nativity anymore without having to go to court. Mostly because, the county just doesn’t have the money to go to court over something like this. Unfortunately I don’t see them going the opposite route, and allow all groups that wish to put up displays. This just isn’t a progressive enough area yet for that to happen. Hopefully one day it will be.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Hi Daniel, thank you for this information. I was looking at your town on Google Maps, and I noticed the plaza while I was looking for any church nearby that could host the nativity scene. I didn’t find any.

    The plaza is nicely designed, and as you said would be very suitable for the nativity scene as well as a dedication ceremony. The main question is, is the veteran’s plaza privately owned? If it’s taxpayer-paid property, city, county, state, or federal, it would still be illegal to host the Christian display exclusively.

    If it’s privately owned and the owners are agreeable, someone slipping the idea into Pendergrass’ ear and convincing him that it was his idea will save face all around.

    The separation of church and state is to protect everyone’s freedom, and I sincerely hope that the local people can continue to enjoy their religious freedom and their 15 year-long tradition without colliding with the very Constitution that gives them their freedom.

  • Daniel Chapman

    Hmmmm… I always assumed that the land the plaza is on was owned by the county, but I could be wrong about that. There use to be a run down building on that lot, that was demolished about ten years ago. It’s possible it is still privately owned… I’ll look into it.

  • Randay

    They have the xmas tree but I didn’t see a manger, a place where animals feed. Here is one example: http://tinyurl.com/mqqeztd

    If Jesus was born in December, the animals would likely have been inside and maybe a bit aggressive if they couldn’t get to their food.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    If you can believe any of it, Luke 2:8 says “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” This is inconsistent with a birth date in December.

    Their version of a manger is there. They just tilted it up against the angel’s legs so the newborn can see the passersby better. Or vice versa.

  • https://antiavidanime.wordpress.com/ The Other Weirdo

    Did they not keep their flock in the fields during December in ancient Palestine? Must have been snowing.

  • A3Kr0n

    Mickey Pendergrass has no business being a judge.

  • dandaman

    But what we didn’t see is that Jesus was gay, so it’s okay.

  • Matthew Baker

    I don’t remember Santa being at the Nativity. And it would seem its missing the pooping guy.

  • Oranje

    Scribble “The God Delusion” on Santa’s book and call it a day.

    /I’m tired and have nothing useful to add today.

  • ginalex

    You mentioned Roy Moore and I was, until I read this post, blissfully unaware of who he is. As I read through his Wikipedia page, I wish I was still blissfully unaware. He was just this past year, re-elected to his post that he was removed from in 2003. How is that possible? Oh, it’s Alabama. I see.

  • Tor

    Some silly observations: Looks like Santa is about to blind-side attack one of the Wise Men. Then there’s that other Wise Man who is actually dressed like Santa, only better. In the low-pixel version on my screen, Joseph looks like a hipster with cool glasses. Is the angel with the trumpet Moroni? See – this really is a multi-faith/secular look at the birth of Jesus.

  • Without Malice

    Every church in town, and every Christian home, has the right to put a such a display; which means there could be hundreds if not thousands of such displays around the town. Why then is there this pressing need on the part of Christians to put up such displays on public property? The truth is that these people just love shoving their religion down everyone else’s throat and to hell with the constitution.