FFRF confirms: No banner this year

Posted by : admin | On : December 16, 2011

By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff

There will be no banner from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn this year, a foundation attorney confirmed this morning.

But that does not mean the legal battle is over.

Attorney Stephanie Schmitt of the FFRF told The Malakoff News that Henderson County has outlined a procedure for requesting a display, and the procedure includes asking Commissioners’ Court. Because commissioners only meet one more time before Christmas, and because it is too late to get on the agenda, the FFRF can’t legally make its banner request in time.

“We missed a deadline,” said Schmitt.

The FFRF is the Wisconsin-based organization that demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn earlier this month. Later, the foundation shifted its focus from removing the nativity to allowing one of its banners on the courthouse lawn.

Schmitt said the foundation will be back to follow the procedure and request the banner be displayed next year, assuming they are asked again by area residents. She said she felt confident that would happen considering FFRF received several calls and emails from county residents supporting its action.

The foundation has also received many calls from unhappy Henderson County residents.

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 & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”

The foundation is basing its actions on the idea of a public forum.

In a press release, FFRF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said, ““The county has created a de facto public forum by allowing a private group to erect this display year after year on government property.”

The FFRF’s stance is that all expressions of faith should be allowed access to the courthouse lawn in a public forum, and that a procedure must be in place for processing requests to do so.

On Monday, County Attorney Cint Davis confirmed the FFRF had asked the county for the procedure it needs to follow to get their banner displayed.

Based on the fact that only one other entity had ever asked the county to erect a display, Davis told the FFRF that it must follow the same procedure as that group: come before Commissioners’ Court to make its request.

Davis and Schmitt had a lengthy phone conversation about the issue Thursday, both confirmed.

“I told her that she and I disagree on the law, but we needed to take a step back and take some of the emotion out of this,” Davis said.

Davis also said the county is not ready to concede the current decorations constitute a public forum.

“There are a lot of factors in this we need to look at (legally),” he said.

Comments (24)

  1. Laura said on 17-12-2011

    If you believe in something, I can see putting something up to show that belief. But if you believe in nothing, why the need to put up a banner to promote it? It’s believing in NOTHING. I don’t get it.

    • Diana S. Hunter said on 18-12-2011

      Hi Laura,

      My guess is that you were posing a rhetorical question and not really wanting an answer; however, I would like to take address the issue.

      First, I’d like to establish that I am not a member of the FFRF and do not believe that their methods are prudent. Also, since I am not a member of that organization, I am not in a position to respond for them (not that I want to anyway.)

      But, as I understand it, their ultimate goal in Athens was to untangle Church from State. Because the grounds of the Henderson County Courthouse are those of a government building, the argument is that by placing a nativity scene on those grounds, there is the appearance that the government supports a religion, in this case Christianity. A secondary line of thought appears to be that the presence of the nativity scene indicates that Christians get preferential treatment in official matters conducted by the county. The goal was apparently to remove any religious symbol; or, alternatively, to have additional displays that represented the beliefs of other religions. I believe what the FFRC wanted to emphasize is that in the United States all citizens are equal, regardless of religion. The position of Henderson County, as I understand it, is that based on the precedent set in a court case, the inclusion of the nativity scene on the courthouse grounds was in compliance with the law because it was a component of a series of decorations, most of which were secular.

      Whether the FFRF accepted the position of the County or they simply decided to take another approach, there was a shift in tactic by the FFRF after the legal position of the County was explained. At this time, the FFRC advanced the premise that the County had created a “public forum” by including a religious display on public property. Because of this, the FRCC maintained that they had the right to have included in the display area something that represents an alternative to the Christian display. They then requested the procedure by which they could submit a request for their own display. At that point, there was not enough time for the FFRC to follow-though the approval process so the whole issue was tabled, for the time being.

      As I understand it, the goal is not to simply hoist a banner proclaiming what is essentially a statement of atheism. What they are trying to achieve is what they seem to see as the second best thing to having no religious displays at all on public property: to have an additional display that represents another point of view.

      It appears to me that their ultimate goal goes back to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

      Although they have been some what heavy-handed about it, the FFRC is not really trying to say that citizens are not free to be Christians (or Jews, Muslims, etc.). What they are saying is that because of the Constitutional premise of the separation of Church and State, no religious symbols should appear on public land; but, if there are religious symbols on public grounds, then all religions should be represented.

      This issue, at least to the FFRF, is not about religious beliefs but about the Constitutional premise of separation of State and Church.

  2. Diana S. Hunter said on 17-12-2011

    Okay, I found a news article on the internet that shows pictures of the FFRF banner that was posted in Athens and then removed by Sheriff’s deputies “10 minutes later.” The article includes pictures.

    This article detains the involvement of the Attorney General of Texas. Pretty scary stuff.–nativity-scene.html

  3. Ruth Walker said on 17-12-2011

    Someone agrreed that it was a good banner except for the last sentence, “Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”

    That person has to be ignorant of the history of Christianity or choose to ignore little incidents such as witch burnings, the Inquisition, John Calvin’s having Michael Servetus killed, and Martin Luther’s “The Jews and their Lies.”

    But then, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34.

  4. Andrew Rhodes said on 17-12-2011

    Come to think of it, here’s an interesting question:

    Supposedly, the planned rally occurred AFTER the requests for said banner to be placed.

    According to reports, the banner is denied permission to be placed because it is too late to request a formal permit by the “commissioner’s court”.

    Yet, magically, a permit for a large group of individuals to gather in a public place WAS granted, after all such gatherings DO require permits to take place, and, apparently, was not too late to be issued.

    So, alongside the apparent bias of certain commissioners, now we have further evidence that MORE bias IS taking place in favor of individuals and groups based on religion. A rather interesting “coincidence”, wouldn’t you say?

    • Michael V. Hannigan said on 17-12-2011

      Actually, the timeline is more like this …. the county received the first FFRF letter Monday, Dec. 5 … first story broke Tuesday, Dec. 6 … pastors met Wednesday, Dec. 7 …. permission for rally given Thursday, Dec. 8; that is the same day FFRF started talking about the “public forum” legal question and bring up inclusion of banner …. Monday, Dec. 12 county declares process for getting decorations on the square (which is different than just a one-hour permit like the rally) …. Tuesday, Dec. 13 I talk to FFRF about the county’s request process, which is the first time they hear about it because the county’s letter hasn’t reached them yet …. Friday, Dec. 15 FFRF says it missed deadline for Commissioners’ Court agenda …….. so the permit for the rally actually came several days before the FFRF asked to be on the Commissioners’ Court agenda.

  5. Ed-words said on 16-12-2011

    It’s a great banner (without that last sentence.)

  6. Bill Dugan said on 16-12-2011

    I must say that as an Atheist and an advocate of reason I disagree with what the FFRF has posted, if in fact 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 & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”

    I’ve voiced my opinion in this forum for over a week and you all know where I’m at. I completely agree with what the banner says, but I don’t agree that this banner should go up. The original issue was a violation of church and state. The banner doesn’t address the issue, rather it is direct criticism of Christian beliefs and it also doesn’t belong on government property. My two cents.

    • Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

      I’ve actually voiced my concerns about the content of the banner on the FFRF Facebook page as well. Of course, since I’m not even a donating member, my concerns don’t hold much pull with them.

      I’d actually posted the below as my own visage of the kind of banner I’d do would look:

      Family, multiple generations with young and old alike, gathered together in the living room, obviously having a great time together.

      Variations (individuallly or in various combinations):
      Including sharing gifts
      Include a Christmas tree/decorations
      Change setting to sitting down to banquet style dinner in dining room.
      Throw in a baby in a crib/playpen/in someone’s arms.

      Tag line:
      “Religious or not, holiday or not, gatherings of family and/or friends and sharing Love for one another make ANY time of the year the best time of year.”

      • Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

        I’d even say a variant has multiple images on one poster, displaying multiple views of the gathering, including and not including religious references, even different types of relationships. All in a positive light.

    • Michael V. Hannigan said on 16-12-2011

      Bill … here is a photo of the FFRF staff with one of these banners … this particular one was going to a different town, but it is the same banner

    • joe chavez said on 16-12-2011

      You state that banner represents a direct criticism of Christians belief. At not point does that banner represent any one religion including the christian religion. I believe in separation of church and state and the FFRF is NOT anti-religion, it is PRO separation of church and state. Until the day comes when we can stop believing in fairy tales, such as the christian religion, the FFRF is justified in banner placement. They have just as much a right to display as the christians or jewish or hindus or the local hospital promoting a blood drive. .

    • Doug Indeap said on 17-12-2011

      It addresses the issue of separation of church and state in that the law gives the government a choice in this sort of situation: Refrain from allowing any individuals to use government property and resources to express religious views or allow all individuals to do so equally. As this county chose the latter approach, FFRF’s expression is every bit as relevant and legitimate as the expressions of others. (It’s just that here, it missed a required procedural step.)

  7. Mary said on 16-12-2011

    Andrew, I am confused by your comment about the county commissioner. Did he say anything derogatory? The only quote I heard was that the nativity would come down “when hell freezes over.” Since the FFRF does not believe that there is a hell, how would this be a derogatory statement?

    • Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

      Actually, the commissioner also referred to individuals of non-religious beliefs as “fruit loops”.

      While the term may be humorous to some, it STILL identifies a particular group in a derogatory manner and shows his bias towards other members of that community.

  8. Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

    “Based on the fact that only one other entity had ever asked the county to erect a display, Davis told the FFRF that it must follow the same procedure as that group: come before Commissioners’ Court to make its request.”

    Except that, publically, at least one member of the government, a commissioner no less, made offesnive and derogatory comments about those of non-religious beliefs, openly admitting to a bias towards such individuals in the performance of their formal government duties.

    And since the initial request, made by an actual member of that community (contrary to the lies, deceit, and misinformation submitted by so many, even government officers, from that “moral” community), was to request INCLUSION and apparently denied, and, moreover, to demand that said individual “out” themselves for the intent of becoming an abuse victim of such a “moral” community (as evident in the actions of that “moral” community in their comments regarding the issue), it isn’t beyond belief that such a demand is meant as an intimidation effort to silence a segment of the community because they are the “minority”.

    As such, we have to seriously wonder what other “minority” this “moral” community keeps beaten down and approves of its local government committing unConstitutional bias towards. While they are arguing that said display that is allowed has been up for decades and that no other display favoring other members of the community has been displayed for decades, we have to remember that OTHER acts of bias on the part of communities and even their local governments have been accepted for decades, even centuries, have been considered acceptable until they were determined to be unConstitutional as well, reglardless of status of “majority” and “minority”.

    • Michael V. Hannigan said on 16-12-2011

      Andrew – the FFRF was not denied the ability to put up its banner … it ran out of time to complete the process this year, something I was told by the FFRF attorney … the issue isn’t closed, just pushed back which will give attorneys more time to jump through the legal hoops …. how this will end is still very much up in the air …. but the banner not going up this year is basically a missed deadline.

      • Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

        The FFRF was only acting in response to a request by a member of the community who made a request for equal and fair treatment. The question as to whether the member of the community contacted FFRF AFTER making an attempt to contact the local government first is in question, made only more questionable in regards to the public response by the commissioner.

    • Diana S. Hunter said on 16-12-2011

      Hi Andrew,

      I live out in rural Henderson County and have not been directly involved in the conflict pertaining to the Holiday decorations in Athens. I have, however, tried to determine what is actually going on. I have read as much as I can find on local media outlet websites as well as the FFRF website. I also plan to drive into Athens sometimes to actually see how the decorations are situated so I can better understand what has given rise to the concerns.

      But, I have not read anything that indicated that a local citizen contacted a county representative and: 1.) voiced concerns about the inclusion of a nativity scene; and/or 2.) requested that a FFRF banner be placed on the square.

      I am interested in learning the specifics of this.

      If that information has been posted on the internet anywhere, would you please provide the URL so I can read the information?



      • Andrew Rhodes said on 16-12-2011

        The procedure that the FFRF follows is when a citizen reports to them a complaint and/or request for addition assistance to be equally recognized (not recognized in place of other displays) by having the backing of an organization.

        These policies and procedures are available on the FFRF website, .

        I’m not an employee of the organization and, in fact, I am not even a donating member. I do, however, have some similar interests in their organization, just as I do in many non-religious organizations, and just as I do in many other organizations pertaining to other issues.

        I’ve seen the overwhelming amount of local media reports, which fail to mention the option that was provided, of either all inclusion or all exclusion. Most report ONLY a demand for removal, which is even what tomorrow’s rally is about, to misinform others about the issue AND to provide intimidation tactics for those members of the community who may very well have “come out” about their different beliefs but, now, because of that intimidation promoted by the local government, the local media, AND a large segment of the local community, may remain “in the closet” about their beliefs, religious or otherwise.

        • Michael V. Hannigan said on 16-12-2011

          Andrew … I certainly cannot argue against the fact that much of the media coverage has been lazy, you are certainly right ….. the FFRF’s first letter demanded the removal, and the possibility of this being a “public forum” came four or five days after that letter was received (which this newspaper has been pretty consistent in reporting) ….. but the rally is certainly not about misinforming people about the issue – in fact, the organizers have gone out of their way to say the rally isn’t even about the nativity scene any more (another thing reported in this newspaper) ….. the organizers have gone out of their way to ask that attendees come with a spirit of peace and love

        • Diana S. Hunter said on 16-12-2011

          Andrew, I really appreciate your willingness to communicate. Given that I live outside of Athens and have limited contacts with locals, I am having a hard time finding any information not geared to one extreme or another. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the Town Square Christians and the FFRC act as two sides of the same coin.
          I became interested in this issue because the separation of church and State is a principle I strongly appreciate. My ancestors emigrated from places where there had been no separation of government from religion. There are many historical accounts of the problems that arise from combining religion and government. It seems foolish to willingly put back on a yoke from which so many around the world struggled to escape.
          I think it is pertinent to the citizens of Henderson County to know whether our elected officials were contacted by any resident of the county with concerns about the nativity scene or about the inclusion of something such as the FFRC banner. If this has happened and any elected official failed to address the concerns properly, then we do have a local problem.

          If, however, one or more Henderson County residents chose to address the issue solely through the FFRC, then the issue becomes clouded. I am not sure many people react well when demands are hurled without any groundwork being laid. At the same time, I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect officials to consider ramifications before they state things which indicate bias, resistance, or a refusal to fairly consider a valid issue.
          After reading certain comments by a local official and numerous emotional comments written by citizens of Henderson County, I can clearly understand why local individuals who had concerns about the appropriateness of the nativity scene on the grounds of the county courthouse felt they would face a hostile climate. From the written reactions and responses, it is clear that there has indeed been a hostile response. But now the question is whether the hostility is due to the provoking nature of the actions of the FRCC.
          I have one more question. Was there ever a banner hoisted on the courthouse grounds or on the square in Athens? If so, could someone describe the banner or post a picture of it?

          Thanks, Diana

  9. […] Week of December 12, 2011 Posted on December 16, 2011 by Jeff Weinstein Story No. 1 – No Banner This Year: A Freedom From Religion Foundation spokeswoman confirmed Friday that there will be no FFRF banner on the courthouse lawn this year. Why it is important: Pushing the issue to next year should drain some of the emotion out of the situation and give attorneys a chance to work out the legal points. Learn more: The Malakoff News broke the story here. […]

  10. No atheist banner this year said on 16-12-2011

    […] Here’s the story.  […]