Wisconsin-based watchdog group objects to Crockett nativity scene

CROCKETT, TX (KTRE) - As Christmas approaches, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has set its sights on another county courthouse nativity scene. On Nov. 28, Stephanie Schmitt, the FFRF's staff attorney, sent at letter to the Houston County Judge's Office objecting to the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn in Crockett.

"Displaying an inherently Christian message on county property unmistakably sends the message that Houston County endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," Schmitt wrote in the letter. "When the government displays this manger scene, which depicts the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, it places the imprimatur of the county government behind Christian religious doctrine. This excludes citizens who are not Christians - Jews, Muslims, Native American religion practitioners, etc., as well as 15% of the US population that is not religious at all, including over 2 million Texans."

In the letter, Schmitt said that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had been contacted by a "concerned local resident" about the nativity scene, which includes "figurines depicting Mary, Joseph, and Jesus." In addition, she mentioned a large tree adorned with Christmas lights near the nativity scene, "which is apparently is sponsored by a private individual."

"We are unaware of any Houston County policy that allows private individuals to erect unattended displays on the grounds of the county building," Schmitt wrote in the letter.

Citing the Texas Public Information Act, Schmitt requested copies of any Houston County policies, rules, procedures, or other written guidelines "outlining the process for obtaining permission to erect private displays on public property such as the county courthouse." She also requested a "copy of the application, contract, agreement, or permit between the county and the private organization, or any other document permitting use of this space for the nativity display."

Later in the letter, Schmitt said that if there is no Houston County policy that allows private organizations to erect unattended displays on county property, the nativity scene is unconstitutional and "must be removed immediately." She cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases that ruled "it is impermissible to place the nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property" and that a nativity scene erected at a county courthouse was "an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."

Schmitt also said the presence of other more secular decorations on the lawn of the Houston County Courthouse are "of no consequence." She cited a federal court case that ruled that even though a secular decoration in a Chicago display was only 10 feet away from a nativity scene, it was "self-contained, rather than one element of a larger display." The FFRF added that it obvious that the Houston County nativity scene is isolated and situated well away from other decorations, making it "self-contained."

"There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed," Schmitt wrote. "Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship."

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