By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff
ATHENS — It took a couple of weeks longer then expected, but Henderson County commissioners approved a premises use policy this week to “clarify and memorialize” the way county property is used.
The policy covers rules for using county property for rallies or demonstrations, including when to apply for a permit and the need for insurance, and for establishing public displays, decorations or monuments.
The approval came without much discussion on Tuesday, but when the policy was first brought before commissioners earlier this month, County Attorney Clint Davis said it was created “to clarify exactly how we are going to approach requests” to use county property. He said letters to local newspapers and other public comments in December made it apparent “there was a lot of public confusion.”
Why December? That’s when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) became a household name in this area and Henderson County became the focus of national news.
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 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 FFRF was stymied last Christmas, but the group is expected to try again in 2012 and could come before commissioners as early as next month with a request to display its banner as part of the seasonal decorations this year.
Although no one in an official capacity has spoken about the policy’s impact on an FFRF request — in fact, the commissioners’ main concerns were centered on the Fairpark Complex (which wound up exempt from the policy) and insurance — it is likely to be a factor.
One of the most important points in the policy comes under the section on “public displays, decorations, or monuments,” and reads:
“Except those areas that have been established as public forums as a matter of law, Henderson County property has not been by tradition or designation a public forum. Henderson County may contract with individuals or private groups to place displays or decorate county property, however, any displays placed on county property are for Henderson County’s intended purpose….”
The policy goes on to state that Commissioners’ Court specifically reserves the right to:
– Approve or deny, in whole or part, any request for display on county property;
– Rescind or modify any approval of a display;
– Control the location of the display and set the duration to allow the display, if any;
– Control the message that is delivered to the public by the use of property owned by Henderson County.
The idea that the courthouse lawn is not a public forum and that commissioners control the message is important because the FFRF holds the opposite position.
In a press release in December, 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 believes all expressions of faith should be allowed in a public forum, including its banner.
The banner the FFRF wanted to display last year 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.”