By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff
ATHENS — When the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed paperwork with the county last week to display an atheist banner on the Courthouse lawn in December, one of the questions percolating behind the scenes was: “Does it have to be this banner?”
The question wasn’t officially asked out loud; it wasn’t broached during the commissioners’ meeting, at least not yet. But the whispers were there.
The proposed 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 FFRF has many different banners, however, including one that simply reads: “Reasons Greetings.”
FFRF attorney Charles Caperton admitted after last week’s meeting to at least hearing the question, but said he couldn’t give an opinion because he had not spoken to his clients about the possibility of change.
Later, however, FFRF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the foundation would not go to a different message, pointing out the proposed banner had been displayed in similar circumstances around the country.
“What we are trying to do is directly counter the theology of the nativity display,” she said. “They cannot put up a nativity display or theological display and then tell people who differ from that, ‘We are going to censor your speech.’”
Gaylor said the fact the nativity scene displayed on the Courthouse lawn doesn’t have an overt explanation of its theology is irrelevant.
“The nativity display in essence says there is one true god, Jesus is his son, he was born to save you and if you don’t believe there will be everlasting fire for you and if you do believe you’ll be in heaven,” she said. “This is recognizing and favoring and endorsing one particular messiah over another, and one particular religion over another, and religion over non-religion.”
For its part, the county has its own opinion about the FFRF’s proposed banner.
“It is merely a rant against religion,” said County Attorney Clint Davis.
“When you look at the overall goal of the county, which is to make the town center attractive through seasonal decorations, you have to ask if their banner does that,” he said.
The FFRF is the Wisconsin-based organization that demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn last December. Later, the foundation shifted its focus from removing the nativity to allowing one of its banners.