Officials in Kerr County, Texas, permitted the display of a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn to acknowledge Christmas during the holiday season, but were unwilling to extend the same right to a local group of non-believers.
The Kerr County Commissioners voted 4-1 in November to deny a request from Kerrville Freethought to erect a banner celebrating Winter Solstice and the Bill of Rights.
“We are just asking for equal treatment,” said David Whitsett, a member of the group, “We’d like to say we want to celebrate our stuff too, and we want to put up a banner that says what our stuff is.”
Another member of the group, Anthony Slape, added, “I have no representation in the country, in the government at all. There’s no political leaders in the country that I know of that are non-religious.”
Some local residents said they considered the banner offensive.
“They are trying to attack and humiliate the fact that we believe in Christ,” said the Rev. Del Way of Calvary Temple Church. Way presented a petition signed by nearly 1,000 people opposing display of the banner.
The courthouse lawn annually includes a nativity scene erected by members of a local church. Courts have generally allowed such displays as long as other groups are given the same access.
The vote marked the second time the commission has deliberated the matter. In September, commission members first dealt with the freethought group’s request during a stormy meeting that drew more than 200 people, many of whom attacked the banner.
That meeting, the San Antonio Express-News reported, was punctuated by people crying, “Amen!” as 13 people spoke, all urging the commissioners to reject the banner.
“We are one nation under God,” said resident John Hammack. “Do not let a few pagan atheists take Jesus Christ out of Christmas.”
The banner, designed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, depicts images of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Statue of Liberty looking down on the Bill of Rights. It includes a seal that says, “Freethought Secular Government.”
The banner includes the phrase “Happy Winter Solstice,” and reads, “Let us also honor the birth of our Bill of Rights, which reminds us there can be no freedom OF religion without freedom FROM religion in government.”
After the commission voted to reject the banner, Commissioner Tom Moser said, “This republic is threatened in many, many ways and I think we need to keep our guard up.”
County Attorney Heather Stebbins looked into the matter but didn’t make a recommendation. FFRF, meanwhile, is considering litigation.
“It looks pretty clearly like we’ve been given discriminatory treatment,” Ryan Jayne, an FFRF attorney, said. “The county cannot be picking and choosing which groups can put displays on the courthouse lawn. That’s called viewpoint discrimination. If the government itself is putting up the nativity scene, then the government is endorsing religion. That it also cannot do.”