By Michael V. Hannigan
The nativity scene from the Henderson County Courthouse lawn has been put away and so has the controversy surrounding the display, at least for a couple of months.
Officials for both Henderson County and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) confirmed this week that the next round in the battle over the county’s Christmas display will likely come in March, when the FFRF is expected to ask Commissioners’ Court for the right to display one of its banners on the lawn in December.
The FFRF is the Wisconsin-based organization that demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn in early December. Later, the foundation shifted its focus from removing the nativity to allowing one of its banners on the courthouse lawn.
The county declined, with County Attorney Clint Davis writing, “Henderson County believes that it is in complete compliance with the requirements of the Constitution and acting very much in accord with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.”
The reaction that followed pushed First Baptist Church of Malakoff Pastor Dr. Nathan Lorick and County Judge Richard Sanders on to the national stage and prompting a local rally which drew an estimated 5,000 to the courthouse.
The next step will likely be in March because Keep Athens Beautiful first received permission to decorate the square from county commissioners in March 2002. In the absence of a formal policy for adding decorations to the square — no one else has ever asked, say county officials — FFRF attorney Stephanie Schmitt said the foundation was OK with following the KAB process.
Since 2002, permission has been requested in writing each year, first by KAB and then by a group which eventually became Light Up Athens and originally consisted of KAB, the Athens Chamber of Commerce, the Central Business Association, and the Athens Visitor Initiative Program. That renewal letter was sent to the county in either September or October of each year.