Judge denies atheist equal representation in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Judge denies atheist equal representation in Mountain Home, Arkansas. January 2, 2014

Please take the time to email Judge Mickey Pendergrass to express your displeasure at judge@baxtercounty.org.  Click here to read my email.

EDIT:  This morning, after an influx of sensible comments, the local paper took down the old article and put up the exact same article with zero comments.  If you’re wanting to be one of the people offering some perspective to this insanely religious town, consider going here and chiming in as well.

Also, click here to see the absolutely hideous reaction from some of the locals.

ANOTHER EDIT: Here’s the Baxter Bulletin’s interview with Judge Mickey Pendergrass.

There’s a storm a-brewin’ right here in Mountain Home, Arkansas.  Here we have a giant nativity scene, with Jesus front and center, on the lawn of the County Courthouse.

This has been provided each year by a local lawyer named F.S. Spencer.  A resident of Mountain Home contacted Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass requesting permission to erect a Winter Solstice Banner as well.  They were denied.

I have spoken with the resident, who wishes to remain anonymous for the time being (though they’re aware that won’t last forever – as they said to me “I’m well aware of what Jessica Ahlquist went through).  They immediately contacted the AHA and the FFRF.  The FFRF contacted Judge Pendergrass to request a list of what hoops a person must jump through in order to 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.

The AHA then sent a letter of their own, which was reported on in our local paper:

A letter dated Jan. 1 from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center is copied to Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass, Mountain Home Mayor David Osmon and Mountain Home attorney F.S. “Rick” Spencer.

The letter is written on behalf of a Baxter County resident who has alerted Appignani Humanist Legal Center to the county’s crèche, which is prominently displayed on the front lawn of the Baxter County Courthouse, according to Monica Miller, the author of the letter for the legal center.

“For about 15 years, the county has featured an exclusively Christian nativity scene in front of its courthouse during the holiday season. Religious (specifically Christian) elements overwhelmingly dominate the display, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Miller wrote.

Following a meticulous description of items in the nativity scene, with explanations of the religious or Christmas connotations of each, Miller writes:

“We hereby demand that the county promptly remove it and provide assurances that no similar display will be erected in the future.”

Deeper in the letter, Miller suggests the possibility of litigation against Pendergrass, Osmon and Spencer.

“To avoid litigation, we respectfully demand that the county remove the current display and provide assurance that similar displays will not be erected in the future. Please respond to this office in writing (email preferred) via mmiller@americanhumanist.org by January 10, 2014, and include in your response the steps you will take to correct the foregoing constitutional violation.”

The paper also got some pretty damning statements from Pendergrass:

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.

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, representing all beliefs equally could result in hundreds of requests (unless, of course, you decided to represent everybody equally by allowing none of it).  Fortunately, the answer to a looming inconvenience is not for representatives of the government to give preferential treatment to one religion over others.

The option of representing all beliefs equally by allowing all or forbidding all is why, by the Judge’s admission, very few counties still put nativity scenes on government property.

If you want my assessment of the situation, here it is: this is an open-and-shut case legally.  The Judge has said he rejected one outlook while permitting another and is clearly being obstructionist.  The creche is overtly religious.  This is a case the county will lose.  However, the very Christian lawyer who puts up the nativity scene has convinced the County Judge (an elected official with very, very limited knowledge) that they are covered.  Spencer, the lawyer, will not be on the hook when the county loses in a landslide.  That will be the taxpayers.  I suspect they will not abide by the Constitution until they are beaten in a lawsuit.

And, oh, the comments on the article in the local paper.  Here’s one from Diane Fountain Heine:

That’s exactly why they are threatening with a lawsuit. They know that counties don’t have the money and will fold their hands. But contacting the ACLJ shouldn’t cost the county a dime. I’m pretty sure it will be taken care of in a swift manner once this organization receives a letter from ACLJ.

Because she is spouting off without knowing about the situation, she doesn’t know that the resident in question did not leap straight to a lawsuit.  They first asked to put up a banner representing their beliefs, which would’ve amounted to equal treatment.  That was the initial request: for equal representation as demanded by not only the Constitution but by a lengthy history of legal precedent.  It was only when they were denied the same privileges granted to the Christian faith that a lawsuit was filed.

If the county is legally in the right, and the resident is just filing a heinous lawsuit, then the county has nothing to worry about.  It’s only a legitimate threat because the county is legitimately in the wrong.

Here’s one from Cindy Horton:

Stand strong Baxter County!! The mayor, the county judge, the lawyer….are all believers…..alright gentlemen….time to stand up and be counted…we will back you!!! believer’s in Jesus Christ are alive and well here in Baxter County!!!

Did you notice she mentioned no legal facts?  Did you notice she made no arguments for how the county was in the right?  She did cite that they were all believers, and that Christians are plentiful in Baxter County (which is an understatement), as if that meant anything legally.  Thankfully, being a Christian does not permit you to break the laws that bind everybody else.  Here is what I wrote back to her in the comment section:

It is fortunate, in a nation that values equality, that the laws do not exist to grant Christianity special privileges. You can all be believers, but if believers break the law, they lose in court just like everybody else.

Your options are simple in this case: the county can represent all its citizens equally (which is not achieved by giving Christianity a spot on government property and nobody else) or the county can throw away tax dollars, paid by believers of all faiths, on a foredoomed lawsuit. I believe the latter is what you referred to as “standing strong”. That is a rather silly synonym for “wasteful and foolish”.

Here’s one from Joel Jiles:

The “Establishment Clause” of the first amendment states that congress shall make no laws regarding the establishment of religion. I didn’t know there was a law stating that there must be a nativity display. I thought this was done voluntarily by the citizens of the county. These godless groups are like a bunch of people who can’t swim forcing everyone to go out into deep water with them. When they finally admit they can’t swim, they will expect the rest of us to save them. Judgement will come and they will not escape.

Because why take the time to learn how the law works when you can threaten the people with whom you disagree?

There is no law state there must be a nativity display.  However, there are laws that insist the government cannot endorse one religion over another.  If the government is putting an homage to Jesus on its property, it violates that law, plain and simple.

And yet, this is how most comments from the believers on this issue will look: parading around their ignorance of the law before issuing threats of eternal torment, presumably before patting themselves on the back for being so awesome and congratulating each other for being so moral.  Gag me.

Here’s Amanda Browning’s contribution:

This is very sad to me. From what I read in the clause, by this being done that is preferring non religion over religion which isn’t accepted either. The only nativity scene I know of is Christian but I did notice Santa in the nativity as well. I hate that this is what our country is coming too and my children have to endure this battle for years to come. I am a Christian and I hope that Baxter Co does not remove the nativity due to a threat but stands by the true reason for Christmas.

No, having no representation isn’t preferring non-religion over religion.  If the county were to put up a banner that said “There is no god, enjoy the life you get!” and then tell Christians “no” when they applied to put up a nativity scene, that would be preferring non-religion and Christians would rightly be furious over it.  However, when the shoe is on the other foot, they seem to largely lack the empathy to understand why equal representation laws exist (hint: because of exactly this type of Christian).  Representing nobody is neutrality, not preference.

Your children do not have to endure this battle for years to come, unless they decide to ignore the Constitution.  Then they, like you and the county, only have themselves to blame.

Here’s Brenda Eldridge’s take:

I looked up the AHLC, an organization for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers. Well, if they are free thinkers don’t Christian’s have the same right, why deprive the rest of us of our nativity scene. If they are offend just look the other way, like we often do.

They’re not offended by the concept of Jesus.  They’re offended by the government, which is supposed to abide by the Constitution (and not give preferential treatment to a single religion) and which is supposed to represent all its citizens equally (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc.) alike, and is failing.

And as for you having to turn away due to being offended, what else is there for you to turn away from?  It’s not about offense, it’s about the law being broken (which should offend all of us, even the Christians).

What’s more, nobody is depriving you of a nativity scene.  Move it to one of the abundance of church yards in Mountain Home.  You won’t hear a peep from anybody then, and even if you did they’d get annihilated in a lawsuit about a creche on private property.  But you can’t have it, to the exclusion of all other representation, on government property.  That’s what the lawsuit is about: not that nativity scenes cannot be displayed (as Brenda implies) but that the government cannot give preferential treatment to Christians.

The corollary is very revealing as well: since this isn’t about the right to put up nativity scenes, since they can and do still go up on private property all the time, for the Christians this is about having their religion, and only their religion, represented on specifically government land.  That’s pretty shitty.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this resident’s anonymity will not last forever.  I cannot exaggerate how Christian my hometown area is.  I wish I could say that Christianity really did make people more moral, and that this resident will not be harassed to no end, but a quick glance at previous instances like this (Jessica Ahlquist, for instance) will reveal that that ain’t the truth.  Let’s give them some support.  We can at least start by heading into the comment section of the local paper and giving them what for.  If you’ve got some spare time, head in and throw out some support.

Not only will this support the people fighting for us, but Judge Pendergrass is already going to be getting pressure from fundamentalists to do the wrong thing (he’s a fundamentalist himself).  If people on our side know about this, then that puts some diametric pressure on him.

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