Foundation Objecting To Henderson County Query Into New Banner
By BETTY WATERS
The Freedom From Religion Foundation considers as censorship Henderson County officials' query about the possibility of the foundation changing to something different the banner it proposes to put on the courthouse lawn with the annual nativity scene.
"We feel like they are censoring our message and we're not willing to do that. We're not willing to stand for that ... government censorship," Stephanie Schmitt, in-house attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in a phone interview from the foundation's headquarters in Wisconsin Thursday.
The foundation reached its position on the issue during a staff meeting Thursday, although it has not received questions that members of the Henderson County Commissioners Court said Tuesday they wanted answered before acting on the foundation's request for a permit for a banner.
The questions will probably be written in consultation with the county attorney next week, county Judge Richard Sanders said Thursday.
However, the foundation's Dallas attorney, Charles Caperton, who represented the foundation during the commissioners' meeting on Tuesday, "passed on" what happened and that the commissioners and county attorney wanted to see if there is a different message the foundation could come up with, Ms. Schmitt said.
Caperton told the news media in the hallway at the courthouse annex Tuesday that County Attorney Clint Davis discussed with him the possibility that the foundation might have an alternative display instead of the banner.
Davis questioned in an interview whether the banner qualifies as a decoration and described it as "a rant against religion."
County commissioners want decorations on the courthouse lawn that are attractive and appealing to the public, Davis said. They approved a permit for decorations set up by Keep Athens Beautiful and the Light Up Athens Committee, but delayed acting on the foundation's request for a permit for a banner.
County Judge Richard Sanders said in a separate interview that some commissioners had noticed other things on the foundation's website and questioned why the foundation chose to request a permit for the banner.
The 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."
Until the foundation hears specifically what county officials are looking for in expressing interest in something different from the banner, Ms. Schmitt said, "we feel this is censorship."
Sanders, said that's "their opinion." He declined to comment further.
Ms. Schmitt added, "We don't agree with the fact that they are trying to pick and choose a message for us. At this time, we're not even considering that option."
Sanders said the commissioners court geared up for Tuesday's meeting and it was the foundation's opportunity to make a presentation to the court.
The foundation's attorney, Caperton, left the meeting without giving the commissioners the opportunity to enter a discussion with him or to ask questions. He appeared briefly before the court during the portion of the meeting reserved for resident comments and did not stay for the segment of the meeting when the commissioners considered requests for permits for decorating the courthouse lawn.
The foundation touched off an uproar in December when it objected to the nativity scene, demanding that it be removed, and then applied for a permit to display its banner near the nativity scene.
County officials refused to remove the nativity scene and did not meet between the time the foundation's permit request came in and Christmas. The foundation is again seeking a permit to display its banner, which is 3 feet by 6 feet.