ATHENS — Whether an anti-religion banner and a nativity scene will both be on the Henderson County courthouse lawn next Christmas could be decided during a meeting of county commissioners at 9 a.m. April 24.
The commissioners are then scheduled to consider whether to grant permits for display of a banner proposed by Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and seasonal decorations proposed by Keep Athens Beautiful that include a nativity scene.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which touched off a controversy that attracted national attention last year with its protest of the annual nativity scene, will request a permit for its banner during the month of December.
Keep Athens Beautiful, a nonprofit community organization in Athens that has decorated the courthouse lawn for holidays including Christmas, Thanksgiving and JulyFourth since 2003, will request a permit for year-round seasonal de- corations including a nativity scene during December.
Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders confirmed Friday that both groups have informed county officials of plans to request a permit and make presentations at the April 24 meeting.
They are two different issues, Sanders said, and he anticipates decisions will be made on both applications.
“I promise you commissioners will vote how they feel like they should vote,” Sanders said. “One thing I’ll say about our court … in the 15 months that I’ve been county judge, they’ve always sat and listened and made independent decisions. This is an independent group.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is waiting to see how the meeting goes, said Stephanie Schmitt, the foundation’s attorney. “From there we will determine if and what needs to happen,” she added.
The foundation’s banner reads: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
The Keep Athens Beautiful Christmas decorations, a project of the Light Up Athens Committee, include an assortment of Yuletide scenes on the four corners of the courthouse lawn. The nativity scene in the past was displayed on the southeast corner portraying the Christ child and parents, an angel, animals and other characters in the biblical Christmas story. Decorations on other corners featured snowmen, Christmas trees and other Yuletide scenes.
This year there is a policy and procedures in place to guide how Henderson County will process requests to place Christmas decorations on the courthouse square, as well as any other use of county property throughout the year.
A recently adopted premises use policy for Henderson County facilities puts in writing the county’s traditional approach to allowing use of county owned property. “We’ve always had policies but they weren’t written down,” Sanders said.
The move to have a written policy was not in response to the foundation’s criticism, Sanders said.
Instead when he took office in January 2011, one goal on his “to do list” was for county officials to put together a policy on use of county facilities throughout the year, Sanders said.
“I had this in my plans because I had (received) several requests for usage of the grounds,” Sanders said. Examples are the Old Fiddlers Reunion, a child abuse prevention demonstration and holiday decorations.
“I felt like I needed to have a policy,” Sanders said.
At his direction, the county attorney drafted a usage policy and sent it to county commissioners for review and suggested changes.
The recently adopted policy applies to all county owned property and premises, with the exception of Henderson County Fair Park Complex.
“We exempted Fair Park because it has its own board and the board governs all that,” Sanders said.
One part of the new premises use policy governs assembly or demonstrations on county property, while the other part governs displays, decorations or monuments on county property.
Both parts require submission of a written application for a permit.
Based upon the number of expected in attendance, an application for a permit for assembly or demonstrations must be submitted according to a schedule. For example, for groups of 25 or fewer, the application must be submitted at least 15 days but not more than 90 days prior to the event. For groups of 100 or more, it must be submitted at least 45 days but not more than 120 days in advance.
The portion of the policy pertaining to public displays and decorations states that except for areas established as public forums by law, Henderson County property has not been by tradition or designation a public forum.
That is contrary to a claim by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the county turned the courthouse lawn into a public forum by allowing Keep Athens Beautiful to decorate.
The foundation’s attorney called the policy “a little contradictory” because at one point it claims county premises are not an open forum but goes on to describe how people can go about getting a permit to put up a display.
The policy states the commissioners court has control over any monument, display or decoration placed on county property.
It requires requests to place public displays or decorations on county property to be made in writing to the county judge. The judge has the authority to approve the request but he also has discretion to carry the request to the commissioners court for consideration.
The court reserves the right to approve or deny in whole or in part any request for a display, to rescind or modify any approval of a display, to control location of the display and its duration and the right to control the message that is delivered to the public by use of county property.
Sanders said he has always had authority to act on requests to use county property and to also take an issue to the county commissioners if he wanted to. All county facilities fall under his jurisdiction except the county jail, which the sheriff controls, Sanders said.
“Big decisions I typically take to the commissioners court; it’s my option to do that. If the commissioners don’t like a decision I’ve made, they have an option to bring it to court also,” Sanders said.
Going forward under the new policy, Sanders said, he will ask the commissioners court to hear presentations annually, probably in March or April, by anyone applying for a permit to decorate the courthouse lawn for holidays year-round. They will have to present a list of what seasonal decorations they would put on the lawn.
The commissioners will determine who gets to provide seasonal decorations on the courthouse lawn by granting a permit.
This year, proposals to decorate year-round are scheduled to be presented to the commissioners during the April 24 meeting.
For several years, Keep Athens Beauiful has decorated the courthouse lawn under a 2003 resolution passed by the court. Every year since then, the group has sent a letter notifying the court that it was going to decorate again under permission from the 2003 resolution. The decorations have included a nativity scene and other Christmas decor, pumpkins and hay for Thanksgiving and flags for Memorial Day.
In the future, under the new policy, Keep Athens Beautiful and any other group interested in providing seasonal year-round decorations will be required to submit an application and Sanders plans to take the permit requests annually to the county commissioners for a decision.
County officials informed the Freedom From Religion Foundation that their request for a permit for a display just in December will be heard this year at the same time the commissioners consider the seasonal permit application from Keep Athens Beautiful on April 24.
Anyone can submit a permit application, according to the county judge. “We are not restricting anybody from applying,” Sanders said.