Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Judge denies atheist equal representation in Mountain Home, Arkansas.


From Patheos

There’s a storm a-brewin’ right here in Mountain Home, Arkansas.  Here we have a giant nativity scene, with Jesus front and center, on the lawn of the County Courthouse.

I have spoken with the resident, who wishes to remain anonymous for the time being (though they’re aware that won’t last forever – as they said to me “I’m well aware of what Jessica Ahlquist went through).  They immediately contacted the AHA and the FFRF.  The FFRF contacted Judge Pendergrass to request a list of what hoops a person must jump through in order to erect a holiday display in reverence to their own beliefs.  Pendergrass responded that because the FFRF wasn’t a private citizen that he did not have to provide that information.  So a collection of residents sent a letter by certified mail to Judge Pendergrass requesting that information.  They have yet to hear back, but I will let everybody know if/when they do.
The AHA then sent a letter of their own, which was reported on in our local paper:
A letter dated Jan. 1 from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center is copied to Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass, Mountain Home Mayor David Osmon and Mountain Home attorney F.S. “Rick” Spencer.
The letter is written on behalf of a Baxter County resident who has alerted Appignani Humanist Legal Center to the county’s crèche, which is prominently displayed on the front lawn of the Baxter County Courthouse, according to Monica Miller, the author of the letter for the legal center.
“For about 15 years, the county has featured an exclusively Christian nativity scene in front of its courthouse during the holiday season. Religious (specifically Christian) elements overwhelmingly dominate the display, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Miller wrote.
Following a meticulous description of items in the nativity scene, with explanations of the religious or Christmas connotations of each, Miller writes:
“We hereby demand that the county promptly remove it and provide assurances that no similar display will be erected in the future.”
Deeper in the letter, Miller suggests the possibility of litigation against Pendergrass, Osmon and Spencer.
“To avoid litigation, we respectfully demand that the county remove the current display and provide assurance that similar displays will not be erected in the future. Please respond to this office in writing (email preferred) viammiller@americanhumanist.org by January 10, 2014, and include in your response the steps you will take to correct the foregoing constitutional violation.”
The paper also got some pretty damning statements from Pendergrass:
Pendergrass said Thursday he will take no action in response to the letter without consultation from legal representatives for the county and the Association of Arkansas Counties. He said Baxter County is apparently among a declining number of counties that permit nativity scene displays on publicly-owned property.
The judge said he rejected a citizen request for the display of a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner on the courthouse grounds because he believed making the courthouse available for any and all requests for occasional exhibits would result in “hundreds” of displays.
Yes, representing all beliefs equally could result in hundreds of requests (unless, of course, you decided to represent everybody equally by allowing none of it).  Fortunately, the answer to a looming inconvenience is not for representatives of the government to give preferential treatment to one religion over others.
The option of representing all beliefs equally by allowing all or forbidding all is why, by the Judge’s admission, very few counties still put nativity scenes on government property.
If you want my assessment of the situation, here it is: this is an open-and-shut case legally.  The Judge has said he rejected one outlook while permitting another and is clearly being obstructionist.  The creche is overtly religious.  This is a case the county will lose.  However, the very Christian lawyer who puts up the nativity scene has convinced the County Judge (an elected official with very, very limited knowledge) that they are covered.  Spencer, the lawyer, will not be on the hook when the county loses in a landslide.  That will be the taxpayers.  I suspect they will not abide by the Constitution until they are beaten in a lawsuit.
And, oh, the comments on the article in the local paper.  Here’s one from Diane Fountain Heine:
That’s exactly why they are threatening with a lawsuit. They know that counties don’t have the money and will fold their hands. But contacting the ACLJ shouldn’t cost the county a dime. I’m pretty sure it will be taken care of in a swift manner once this organization receives a letter from ACLJ.
Because she is spouting off without knowing about the situation, she doesn’t know that the resident in question did not leap straight to a lawsuit.  They first asked to put up a banner representing their beliefs, which would’ve amounted to equal treatment.  That was the initial request: for equal representation as demanded by not only the Constitution but by a lengthy history of legal precedent.  It was only when they were denied the same privileges granted to the Christian faith that a lawsuit was filed.
If the county is legally in the right, and the resident is just filing a heinous lawsuit, then the county has nothing to worry about.  It’s only a legitimate threat because the county is legitimately in the wrong.
Here’s one from Cindy Horton:
Stand strong Baxter County!! The mayor, the county judge, the lawyer….are all believers…..alright gentlemen….time to stand up and be counted…we will back you!!! believer’s in Jesus Christ are alive and well here in Baxter County!!!
Did you notice she mentioned no legal facts?  Did you notice she made no arguments for how the county was in the right?  She did cite that they were all believers, and that Christians are plentiful in Baxter County (which is an understatement), as if that meant anything legally.  Thankfully, being a Christian does not permit you to break the laws that bind everybody else.

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Here’s Brenda Eldridge’s take:
I looked up the AHLC, an organization for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers. Well, if they are free thinkers don’t Christian’s have the same right, why deprive the rest of us of our nativity scene. If they are offend just look the other way, like we often do.
They’re not offended by the concept of Jesus.  They’re offended by the government, which is supposed to abide by the Constitution (and not give preferential treatment to a single religion) and which is supposed to represent all its citizens equally (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc.) alike, and is failing.
And as for you having to turn away due to being offended, what else is there for you to turn away from?  It’s not about offense, it’s about the law being broken (which should offend all of us, even the Christians).

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