Atheists Win Lawsuit Against Arkansas County That Erected Nativity Scene Outside Courthouse

This was the scene in front of the Baxter County Courthouse in Mountain Home, Arkansas in 2013:

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:

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 — which turned out to be blogger JT Eberhard‘s father — 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 Baxter County soon leased 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 was another Nativity scene. And the lease only lasted two months, through January 15 (of 2014).

Isn’t that convenient…?

Eberhard also pointed 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.

The American Humanist Association eventually filed a lawsuit against the judge and the county last December. Dessa Blackthorn was 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 was a 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 has been proof of that.

The case has finally been resolved. All you need to know is that the judge in question decided to follow the law instead of some set of personal religious beliefs:

U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks issued his decision today, determining that the display violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and ordered that Baxter County must either “refrain from placing any religiously sectarian seasonal display on the courthouse grounds” or “create a public forum on the courthouse grounds for a seasonal display open to persons of all faiths as well as of no faith at all, without discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.”

So… it’s everything we’ve been saying for more than a year now. But it’s the right decision even it took this long to be issued.

“Nativity scenes are only appropriate for private property,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “When the government allows a holiday display that represents just one faith, it implies endorsement of that faith, excluding all others, regardless of what they believe.”

The one downside to this is that the AHA also tried to go after Judge Pendergrass as an individual for bringing religion into the matter, but Brooks essentially said that Pendergrass interpreted the law in a different way. He wasn’t doing anything malicious; his ruling was just wrong.

I don’t agree, for what it’s worth, but it’s irrelevant. The more important issue — of whether Baxter County could promote Christianity (and no other belief) on government property — has been settled and the Humanists came out on top.

(Large portions of this post were published earlier)

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