By Michael V. Hannigan
A San Antonio atheist recently became the newest participant in Henderson County’s apparently-not-confined-to-Christmas nativity scene controversy.
Patrick Greene this week emailed a letter to all members of Commissioners’ Court threatening a lawsuit if the nativity scene is not moved to private property. In an email interview with The Malakoff News, Greene said, “… If they do not respond to my email by … Monday, February 20, 2012, I will assume that they have no intention of responding at all. In which case I will begin filling out the necessary forms, and file the lawsuit on the day they put up the nativity display.”
When asked his reasons for becoming involved, Greene said “to show that Christianity does not rule my state of Texas, the Constitution does. Christianity is only one of the many faiths represented in this state.”
This is not the first time Greene has taken such a stance on a church-state issue and, if it goes that far, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s filed a lawsuit based on his beliefs. Greene has a history of activism going back to at least 1998, when he challenged – and changed – the way the city of Ontario, California stored and cared for a series of nativity scenes. He has also twice filed lawsuits against the San Antonio mayor’s office for prayer-related reasons, and has pursued legal action against other entities.
County officials are taking Greene seriously and declined to comment this week because of the threatened lawsuit. The county still believes its position regarding the nativity is correct, however.
The local controversy began in December when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) first demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn. The group later shifted its focus to getting an atheist banner displayed alongside the nativity, an effort that is expected to continue in March or April. (Greene is not a member of the FFRF.)
The county declined to remove the nativity, 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 from some area Christians pushed First Baptist Church of Malakoff Pastor Dr. Nathan Lorick and County Judge Richard Sanders onto the national stage and prompted a local rally which drew an estimated 5,000 to the courthouse.
That rally is what caught Greene’s attention when he came across the story last week.
“I saw an article referring to the scene, and read all I could find, including the entire six-part video on Youtube about the rally,” he said. “I was stunned to see the flagrant way that the Constitution was being totally ignored by all these people. It was as if the Constitution was being trampled on with shear glee…. I felt that I had to step into this matter with both feet.”
Greene’s original plan was to have an anti-nativity rally on Dec. 21, which he announced last week in a letter to the editor (see Page 2A). He will have to go through the county to reserve the courthouse lawn, but officials said it is too early to hear that request. The county usually hears those type of items about 90 days before an event.
Greene is still planning to hold the rally, but said he raised the ante this week with the lawsuit because of Commissioner Joe Hall.
In addition to being Pct. 1 commissioner, Hall is a Baptist pastor. He is outspoken about his Christianity, and not only in connection with the nativity scene. Hall consistently votes no on any alcohol election issue which comes before Commissioners’ Court based on his faith, despite the fact commissioners have no power to stop alcohol elections.
The commissioner definitely irked Greene, who calls himself an American Atheist.
In an email to Hall, Greene wrote, “You stated that this is a ‘Christian’ country. I do not understand how a government official could take sides like that.”
When thinking about the issue, Greene told The Malakoff News, “(Hall) was by far the worst, because he was a county government official, whose job is to never take sides in matters of religion.”
For his part, Hall said this week he was only one commissioner and did not have the authority to speak for the entire Commissioners’ Court, so what he said cannot be construed as an official statement. He also said he was a Christian before he became commissioner, he’ll be a Christian afterward, and that is what comes first for him.
Greene also said he will not be satisfied if the FFRF gets to display its banner.
“I think they (the FFRF) are copping out of their responsibility to the Constitution,” he said. “Even if they do get permission to put up their banner, what is going to keep someone from damaging it, or spraying graffiti on it, or covering up the banner. I saw everyone in the rally on Youtube; they would rather burn the banner than allow an atheist sign to be put up.”
Greene did not confine his letters to just county officials. He has also emailed Keep Athens Beautiful, the Athens Chamber of Commerce, several area pastors, and area newspapers.