Driving through the tiny rural town of Athens, Texas, and you’d be hard pressed to find something that might catch national attention -- or so it was until about a week ago.
An hour and a half outside of Dallas, the Athens town square is dominated by the county courthouse, and this time of year, Christmas decorations are on each corner. But it is the nativity scene across the street from the Taco Bell that has caused controversy.
It started with a simple letter. As Henderson County commissioner Joe Hall tells it, he received the shock of his life when he found out a Wisconsin group was demanding that the nativity scene be taken down.
“We get a letter saying you better do this or we're going to do that," Hall said.
A letter from Wisconsin telling Texans what they ought to do?
“You come to my house looking for a fight, you're gonna get one," he said.
Since then, many folks in the county have come out in support of the nativity scene, which has been on the square in some form or another for three decades. But the group asking for it to be removed says it has legitimate concerns.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an atheist group based out of Madison. Co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor says the group received a complaint from one of its members in Athens. She says since the display is right in front of the courthouse, the nativity scene makes it look like county government is endorsing Christianity.
“This excludes non-Christians and non-believers who are 17 percent of the U.S. population," Gaylor said. "So it's necessary there should be changes.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is not just asking that the nativity scene come down. It’s now also asking that a banner go up.
“One of the commissioners said to the effect that other people could put up their views,” Gaylor said. So one group member thought, why not put up a banner?
If you thought the nativity was controversial, wait until you see the banner. It reads: “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.”
There’s no word on when the banner might go up. If Hall has his way, it will be never.
In the meantime, one or two women standing stand each day in front of the nativity scene with a petition urging others to sign in support of keeping the nativity where it is. A group of pastors is also planning a rally this weekend. A pastor who’s planning it says he expects a couple thousand people to pack the square.
What happens next? Gaylor said the Freedom From Religion Foundation will wait and see what county government does, but the group’s next move could include legal action.
Hall has said if it comes to that, the county has already received offers of legal help. He also says the nativity scene will come down “after Christmas, or when hell freezes over.”