‘Don’t touch my manger,’ says Texas town

The nativity scene outside a courthouse in Athens, Texas. Photo posted on Facebook.
 
Athens, a small Texan town just 75 miles south-east of Dallas, is the kind of place that prides itself on having a small-town feel. Up until recently, its biggest claims to fame were as the “home of the hamburger” or the “black-eye pea capital of the world”. Yet all that changed in early December when a nativity scene on display just outside the local courthouse became the centre of a national debate on the role of religion in a secular society.
 
The controversy, oddly, began more than a thousand miles north of Athens in Madison, Wisconsin, where the secular Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is based. The FFRF had caught wind of complaints about the nativity scene from members of Athens’ community, and took it upon themselves to draft a letter requesting that local authorities have it removed from the front lawn of the county courthouse. They argued that placing religious symbols outside a government building excluded people of different backgrounds or faiths.
 
The reaction to the FFRF’s request was less than compliant.
 
“We’ll remove it when hell freezes over”, said Joe Hall, a county commissioner in Henderson County, where Athens is located. Even Texas’ Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a public statement declaring his support for Athens’ nativity scene by offering his professional services in the event that the FFRF took legal action.
 
The issue grabbed national attention over the weekend when a reported 5,000 people descended on Athens to rally in support of the nativity scene, and an on-line petition posted on Facebook has garnered more than 500 signatures.
 

"The nativity scene has been in front of the courthouse for as long as I can remember"

Ricky Milam lives in Athens where he works as the manager and graphic artist for East Texas Screen Printing company.
 
I went to the rally on Saturday to support the community and the cause. As a Christian, I don’t necessarily agree with the FFRF, but it’s their first amendment right to express their opinion.
 
For the most part, Athens is a Christian community – it runs right in the path of the bible belt. To give you an idea, there are probably around 10 churches in a town of around 12,000 people. The nativity scene has been in front of the courthouse for as long as I can remember.
 
I’m 29 years old and have lived in Athens pretty much my whole life and this is the first time I have ever seen – I don’t want to say religious persecution – but a fuss of this magnitude.
 
This is a time of year when families are coming together and people are giving thanks for the birth of Christ. It’s disappointing that people would turn this into a major issue when there is so much else to focus on.
 
I suppose the best diplomatic solution would be to move the nativity scene, but as a Christian, I believe in what it represents."
 
Milam designed this T-shirt for the December 17 rally in Athens. On the back is written, “Don’t touch my manger.” Photo posted on Facebook by East Texas Screen Printing.

“We’re not saying 'destroy all nativity scenes', we’re just saying it doesn’t belong on government property”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the non-profit organisation, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has led efforts to have the manger removed.
 
We first received a phone call from an Athens resident, someone who isn’t a member of our organisation, who was looking for help. We saw a photo of the nativity and realised that it was standing alone on government property. It is against the law for the government to mount a display that focuses solely on religion. When we asked, the local authorities said it had been put up by a group, which signified to us that the land was being used as a public forum. We’re not saying destroy all nativity scenes, we’re just saying it doesn’t belong on government property, and if it does, that space needs to be opened up to different viewpoints.
 
We gave a banner to one of our complainants in Athens, but a banner doesn’t really cut it for balancing the visual of a nativity scene. So we’ve asked Henderson County to permit us to display what we call a ‘natural nativity’ on the grounds next year. Instead of a baby Jesus, there’s a black baby girl for equality. In the place of the wise men, there are truly wise historical figures such as Darwin, Einstein, Emma Goldman and Mark Twain.
  
I don’t know how they got 5,000 people into a town of 12,000 to rally against us. We’ve never dealt with people like this before. For a week after we sent out our letter, our phone lines were tied up with prank calls who said things like ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ or worse. We’ve been branded as un-American, and as meddling in Texan affairs when all we’ve been doing is representing our members and complainants.”
 
FFRF’s Winter Solstice banner wrapped around a tree trunk in Athens. It says, “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 banner was reportedly taken down by Athens law enforcement officials.

Comments

Reply to comment | The FRANCE 24 Observers

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Look forward to checking out your web page again.

Lets be honest and spill the beans

These so called "freedom from religion" organizations are just a front to the jewish lobby in America. They loath the fact that USA is (still) a Christian Majority Country and they finance expensive law suits against these small towns that 'dare' stage nativity scenes.
Surely enough these so called secular groups are always silent and accepting of the yearly lighting of the giant 12 metre Hanukkah Menorah on the white house lawn. Isn't the white house lawn government territory? Oh, when it comes to Jews its ok I guess..

Why is it that people always

Why is it that people always point the finger at us Jews? YOU never mentioned that HUGE Christmas Tree that is also standing on that same lawn and in the White House itself. And what about Christmas Trees on the Lawns of every city hall across the US.
There has not been a single Jew who has protested because of that. A Local Christian Hospital told me when I offered to put a small 10" Chanukiyah and some gelt and dreidels on a piano next to a Christmas Tree that was 3 stories high, that they did not allow it because they hired a company to decorate and non-Christian decorations were not part of it and I would be arrested by their Security and led out under guard from the Hospital should I try to do this. I know personally that there are dozens of Jewish Doctors who work there and would find that little display meaningful and be glad that their Holiday was acknowledged.

Also, did you know that the First Lady's Relative is an Orthodox Jew?
Before you continue to blame Jews for things, remember that according to YOUR OWN FAITH, you are just grafted into the Tree.

Texas nativity

Good for Texas ! Keep your busybody, politically correct crap. I'm not a bible-thumping Christian, but I am SICK AND TIRED of organizations like this trying to shove PC behavior down our throats.

"I don't know how they got 5,000 people in a town of 12,000 to rally against us." It's plain to see..people in Athens Tx. don't have their heads buried in the sand. They have common sense. They're not going to stand by and let someone come in and take away a tradition, just because it MIGHT offend a small minority.

As for the banner from the group...again, I'm not a bible-thumping Christian....it was offensive to me. I'm glad they took it down.

PC

I would like to comment that it doesn't seem very PC to not wanting to have that ridicuolus stuff shoved down our throats all the time, just wanting some fresh air in a religious crazy world

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