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.