ATHENS — A Wisconsin-based atheist group is considering what it will do after its request for a permit to place its banner on the Henderson County courthouse lawn during the Christmas holidays was denied.
She added she had no idea when the foundation will decide what course it will take because it is “in the middle of so many things right now.”
Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders sent an email to the foundation Wednesday denying its permit application.
The email stated: “After reviewing the Freedom From Religion's request for a permit to display its banner and reviewing the (foundation's) answers to questions from the Henderson County Commissioners Court, I have made the decision to deny the request from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to display its banner on the Henderson County courthouse lawn.”
The email advised the foundation that any future communications concerning the matter should be directed to County Attorney Clint Davis.
The foundation touched off a furor last year when it objected to a nativity scene that has been displayed on the courthouse lawn for years.
The group initially asked that the nativity be removed and then applied to place a banner on the lawn along with the nativity scene. Christmas came and went last year with no action by county officials on the foundation's request for a permit for the banner.
In the midst of the controversy in December, an estimated 5,000 people rallied at the courthouse in support of the nativity scene.
This spring, county commissioners quietly sent a half dozen questions about the proposed banner to the foundation.
Decorations on the courthouse lawn during the upcoming Christmas holidays will be just like they were last year, Sanders said.
The decorations, which are set up by Keep Athens Beautiful and its Light Up Athens Committee, appear every year on all four corners of the courthouse square, with the nativity scene on the southeast corner and other corners displaying Christmas trees, snowmen and other holiday scenes.
Sanders said he had authority to make the decision about the permit under a premises use policy adopted by the county commission earlier this year and because he has authority over buildings the county owns.
“It was no surprise. I felt that they've just been simply giving us the runaround from the very beginning the entire time,” Ms. Gaylor said.
“It was very obvious. They've been playing games with us. They made us jump through hoops submitting our application, yet it was clear from the outset they had no intention of allowing any other point of view,” Ms. Gaylor said. The county set up standards intended to keep the status quo and censor the foundation's speech, she said.
Ms. Gaylor maintained that it is not the business of Henderson County government to host a manger scene proclaiming the birth of Jesus as the messiah.
“A county government should not be taking sides in religion or in promoting or endorsing Christianity over other religions or religion over nonreligion,” she added.
The first banner that the foundation proposed read: “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.”
An alternative banner that the foundation proposed in September stated: “Celebrate the Winter Solstice — the Real Reason for the Season.”
The commissioners asked why the banner was selected for Henderson County. The foundation replied that the first banner proposed has been used at many other locations, including state capitols in Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi and Washington.
“We feel it will provide an additional festive and seasonal decoration that will contribute to the overall display,” the foundation said in a written response.
Asked by county officials what is the foundation's purpose in wanting to display the banner in Henderson County, the foundation answered, “to represent the views of Henderson County freethinkers and nonbelievers.”
The county also asked whether the foundation believes that the banner presents a Christmas decoration. The foundation responded, “The banner is a festive and seasonal Winter Solstice decoration. Because Freedom From Religion Foundation members are non-Christian, the foundation does not have Christmas decorations. Our décor seeks to celebrate the season of Winter Solstice.”
The foundation further maintained in its answers to county commissioners' questions that the banner is appropriate for use as a display on the courthouse law and would enhance the overall iconic nonsecular message.