The phrase "Don't Mess with Texas" took on fresh significance over the weekend as thousands rallied in a small Texas town to defend the community's nativity display. Over 5000 residents gathered in Athens, Texas on Saturday to show their support for the display, which is erected each year on the county courthouse lawn by a nonprofit group called Keep Athens Beautiful.
Officials of Henderson County, located southeast of Dallas, had received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation threatening to sue them if they did not take down the nativity scene. The atheist group, headquartered in Wisconsin, had argued that the display of the birth of Jesus Christ is an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.
The Athens holiday display includes numerous images of Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, snowmen, trumpeters, and dwarfs, in addition to the Christmas creche. By including several secular elements along with the religious themes, the display clearly meets standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years for Christmas holiday displays.
County Judge Richard Sanders says the display isn't going anywhere. "We've got an array of decorations and feel that we are in compliance with federal law." County Commissioner Joe Hall went even further. "We
get a letter saying you better do this or we're going to do that. You come to my house looking for a fight--you're gonna get one...The nativity scene will come down after Christmas, or when hell freezes over."
The Freedom from Religion group is also demanding that a banner be hung on the courthouse lawn that reads as follows: "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 and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The Saturday rally in downtown Athens, organized by area pastors, included Christmas carols, patriotic music, speeches, and prayers. It also included a canned food drive and community social service resources. One of the leaders, Pastor Nathan Lorick
of the First Baptist Church in Malakoff, said, "It is time for Christians in America to stand up, show up and speak up. It is time to lead America back to the Biblical and Christian values and morals that have made our nation so great since its birth."
"This [rally] is a statement to the nation that Christians are tired of the persecution and suppression," Lorick added. "I do hope that people across the nation will take note and know that they too can stand up and speak up. We want all to know that we are ready to contend for the the faith."Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot
offered immediate support to Henderson County officials, pledging to defend them against any lawsuit. "Our message to the atheists is don't mess with Texas and our nativity scenes. This atheist group is just trying to bully local government bodies. The people of Henderson County need to know this state has a lawyer who has their back...and has the firepower to go toe-to-toe with these outside organizations."
Pastor Mark Fulks of Chandler First Assembly of God expressed exasperation with the controversy. "Is the manger scene really that offensive? Our country was founded on freedom of religion and freedom of speech. I have come to realize that some feel freedom of speech and expression are only good for those who are non-Christians. We're not trying to push
Christianity down anyone's throat. We just want to celebrate the birth of the Savior."
Fulks believes the actions of the atheist group will continue to backfire. "The Freedom from Religion Foundation has put the good news of Jesus Christ on the front page. They are inadvertently bringing people closer to the Gospel message by trying to snuff it out. If they really care about bettering mankind, they would spend their money on feeding hungry children or buying coats for kids."
Rock Hill Baptist Church Pastor Robert Welch said of the rally: "Our goal was to let our voices be heard in unison proclaiming the centrality of Christ in Christmas. Christmas is not just a day off from work, a time to visit family, or an indulgence in gross materialism...This rally was an opportunity for Christians in Henderson County to...boldly profess that Jesus Christ is the reason we celebrate Christmas."