by Max Brantley
As detailed in the lawsuit, Baxter County has maintained and featured a predominantly Christian nativity scene on the county courthouse lawn in Mountain Home, Arkansas, for at least fifteen years. The display is dedicated to the New Testament account of the birth of Jesus Christ, with only a few non-nativity related Christmas symbols, such as a Santa Claus, reindeer and a Christmas tree, incidentally included. The complaint contends that the purpose of this display is to promote Christianity and that the nativity scene, prominently placed in front of a county courthouse, has the effect of endorsing Christianity and religion over non-religion.
Despite requests from local residents in December 2013 to include a “Happy Solstice” banner near the nativity scene, which were denied, Baxter County has continued to feature the Christian nativity scene to the exclusion of all other religious and non-religious emblems. In response to these actions, the Appginani Humanist Legal Center, on behalf of a Baxter County citizen, sent a letter to county officials on January 1, 2014, with a follow-up email on October 23, 2014. These correspondences received no formal reply. In December 2014, Judge Pendergrass, also named in the lawsuit, was reported to have said to the media, “I'm just not allowing anything else, anywhere else on the square, besides that (crèche).”
“The Supreme Court has made clear that the prominent display of a Christian nativity scene on government property, which focuses on the birth of Jesus Christ, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “By denying the request for a secular holiday display, the county has also demonstrated that it is not exercising an open forum policy, leaving holiday displays to the sole discretion of the county judge.”
“Public endorsement of a Christian holiday marginalizes those of minority religions, as well as the growing number of people with no religion,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “These individuals should not feel unwelcome or disregarded in their own community during the holiday season.”
The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that the maintenance and display of the nativity scene on government property violates the Establishment Clause. It also seeks an order enjoining the county from exhibiting the nativity scene on government property and from endorsing religion by public displays that give the appearance of government promotion of religion.