Courthouse nativity scene draws criticism

RUSK – A nativity scene on the Cherokee County Courthouse lawn has drawn the attention of a local American Humanist Association member who claims it sends a negative message to those with other beliefs and wants it removed.

In a Nov. 24 press release from Appignani Humanist Legal Center attorney Monica Miller, the center sent a letter to county officials on behalf of county resident Daniel Ross – described as a “Humanist celebrant” – who objected to the display of “an exclusively Christian nativity scene on the lawn of the County Courthouse in Rusk, Texas.”

The release stated that Ross requested assistance with “what is correctly perceived as a constitutional violation.”

In particular, Miller noted, “religious – specifically, Christian – elements overwhelmingly dominate the display, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

The action stemmed from Ross's Nov. 14 request to County Judge Chris Davis and the four members of the Commissioners Court “to request permission to include a display of the Humanist 'HumanLight' or 'Happy Humanist' symbols alongside the creche because he feels the county's Christian display is unwelcoming toward non-Christians and individuals with no religion,” the release stated.

Earlier this month, Ross requested the county display a sign representing HumanLight – which he described as a Dec. 23 secular holiday “designed to celebrate and express the positive, secular, human values of reason, compassion, humanity and hope” – according to a separate Nov. 24 letter from Miller to county officials.

However, a negative response from Cherokee County Pct. 3 Commissioner Katherine Pinotti spurred Ross's decision to counsel from Miller.

“(I) wanted to respond to you from a purely personal point of view,” Pinotti wrote, suggesting to Ross “perhaps you should consider choosing another time of the year to demonstrate your secular support instead of attempting to infiltrate the Christmas holiday with a singular purpose to destroy and denigrate the beliefs of others. Try to live and let live”

In response, Miller wrote county officials, demanding the creche be immediately removed from the courthouse lawn.

However, in a telephone interview Tuesday with the Jacksonville Progress, Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis claimed the county “is not violating anything in any way. We have no plans of removing anything, whatsoever.”

At the time of the call, he and County Attorney Dana Young were working on a press release Tuesday morning to announce the county's decision.

Meanwhile, Davis said the county “has always had (a nativity) of some sort, and this one was donated last year to the Keep Rusk Beautiful Committee by a local family.

“In the past, we've had a small one carved out of wood by a local pastor, we've had one painted on plywood – we've always had one displayed since I've been here. It's a tradition that we will uphold,” Davis said.

American Humanist Association legal director David Niose called it “very troubling that a request for inclusion was met with hostility an accusations.

“This appears to be a textbook example of a local official who believes Christianity deserves special status from the government,” he said in the legal center's release. “We've got news for her: It doesn't.”

Davis said that in his 20-plus years working at the courthouse – the past 12 as county judge – the comments about the nativity scene have been positive.

“In our area, I think it's just a given to have one – I think we'd have more complaints if we didn't have one,” he said.

Pinotti did not have any comments for media Tuesday, instead asking her office staff to tell callers to contact Davis if they had questions or concerns about the issue.

According to www.americanhumanist.org, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

Christians constitute a sizable majority of the 2010 U.S. population (78 percent), while 16 percent were unaffiliated with any religion, according to The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

 

 

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