Christmas controversy erupting in Athens again

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by TERESA WOODARD

WFAA

Posted on November 21, 2012 at 8:55 PM

ATHENS, Texas -- The scarecrows and hay bales and pumpkins and gourds on the Henderson County courthouse lawn are about to give way to wreathes and bows and angels and, if Patrick Greene has his way, a four-foot-long, hand-written sign.

"I went to Walmart, bought a cardboard box, got some gift wrapping material and made up a sign that said, 'This star is a gift from two Texas atheists, Merry Christmas,'" he said.

Greene is an atheist from San Antonio. He threatened to sue Henderson County last winter over the nativity scene on its courthouse lawn, which has been displayed each Christmas for more than a decade. But Greene backed off the suit when his health began to fail.

As a sign of Christian goodwill, a church in Athens raised money, and sent Greene hundreds of dollars to help him and his wife through the health scare. Greene said they were genuinely touched by the people's "generosity and kindness," so they bought a star for the county's nativity scene. He sent the star in March.

"We were very appreciative," he said.

Greene said his sign, which arrived at the office of the Keep Athens Beautiful president on Nov. 20, is meant to undo damage done by other atheists.

Last year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation also threatened to sue if Henderson County did not remove the nativity display from county property. They also requested what's called an "equal time" display. Their display would have included a banner with a message reading, "At this Season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Henderson County refused both requests.

Greene called the Freedom From Religion Foundation's sign insulting.

"You don't just push yourself into some place and insult people while you're doing it," he said. "We thought it was arrogant for Freedom From Religion Foundation to insult people, just to make a point."

He said when he heard the county denied the foundation's requests, "I told my wife that because of the animosity that grew toward atheists in general, that we should tell people - and make it a point - that atheists are the ones that gave them that star."

So that's when he went to Walmart, made his sign, and sent it, with his demand the sign be presented next to the star.

"We can't risk any more animosity toward atheists by letting people think Christians are the ones that put the nativity scene there, and that Christians were the ones that put the star there," he said.

Henderson County Attorney Clint Davis said once the county officially reviews Greene's request, the county judge will have the final say on what to do with the sign.

"Typically, as we just did with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we have not allowed banners or signs of any kind," he said. "The decorations we have to not have wordings, and they are simply decorations."

If the sign and star are not displayed, Greene said he is drawing up a lawsuit that he will likely file against Henderson County this week or next week, claiming the entire Christmas display violates Texas Constitution because it infers the county is endorsing a religion.

"If people are insulted by my sign that said 'atheist,' then they have no intention of fostering the Christmas message, because goodwill toward men goes both ways," Greene said.

Davis disputes Greene's claims that the nativity scene violates Texas constitution.

"The county's viewpoint is that we are in complete compliance with all the laws and all the regulations," he said. "After a year-and-a-half into this, I've yet to have anybody from Henderson County that's contacted me that said, 'I've been personally offended by any display on county property.' It's all been from people from the outside. And that's the frustrating thing when you think you're doing everything right - everything you're supposed to do - and you're still subject to these attacks."

Keep Athens Beautiful Executive Director Carol Morton said despite the distractions, the nativity scene will begin to be installed next week and the Light Up Athens Committee of Keep Athens Beautiful officially kicks off the Christmas season December 1.

"We're here to make a beautiful display on the square for all the wonderful people in Henderson County and the city of Athens, so just come and have fun with us," Morton said.

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