Arkansas’ Baxter County Courthouse lawn has displayed a nativity scene every Christmas for the past 40 years but it may not return this year.
On Thursday a federal judge ruled that setting up the decorations — which in past years featured a crèche with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Santa Claus, a sleigh, reindeer, and a Christmas tree — on courthouse grounds violates the First Amendment. In his judgment Judge Timothy Brooks offered the county two options: “refrain from placing any religiously sectarian seasonal display on the courthouse grounds,” USA Today reports, or “create a public forum on the courthouse grounds for a seasonal display open to persons of all faiths as well as of no faith, without discrimination on the basis of viewpoint."
Dessa Blackthorn, of Mountain Home, Ark. (shown above), who teamed up with the American Humanist Association to sue Baxter County and County Judge Mickey Pendergrass over the nativity scene, told USA Today, “This wasn’t done to try to take anything away from anybody; it was to include all of the citizens of Baxter County in their holiday beliefs. There are so many different beliefs and I think everybody needs to be included."
Mickey Pendergrass (Photo: BaxterBulletin.com)
And Blackthorn felt that the law was on her side, even if it didn’t seem like all of the 45,000 residents in the county were. “We were fairly confident that we would win,” Blackthorn’s attorney, J.G. Schulze tells Yahoo Parenting of the suit that the tattoo parlor owner filed late last year after she was denied in her 2013 request to add a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner on the lawn outside the courthouse. “If they’d been willing to grant fair access to the public space,” he says, “we wouldn’t have gone forward.”
Insisting that his client hasn’t been the only one irked by the Christian-focused scene over the years, Schulze explains, “There were many other people who felt that what was going on was fundamentally unfair but because of local politics were afraid to step forward fearing adverse consequences to themselves, their children, their jobs.”
Mickey Pendergrass’s defense maintained, however, that Blackthorn was out of bounds with her suit because the nativity was erected on a piece of land that the courthouse had leased to a private citizen. As such, his camp contends that it isn’t publicly owned space and that it couldn’t be proven that the county had set up, or displayed, the nativity scene. (Neither Pendergrass nor his attorney Jason E. Owens responded to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment).
Owens’s court filings also assert that Blackthorn had no basis for her lawsuit because she didn’t suffer a personal injury as a result of the nativity scene. According to the Baxter Bulletin, Owens’ court brief detailed that “the U.S. Supreme Court has held that individuals must show they have something more to gain in a lawsuit ‘than the mere ideological or psychological satisfaction of upholding the Constitution.’”
But hurt is exactly what Blackthorn insists that she and others experienced by not being able to represent their religion in the nativity scene — similar to cases playing out across the country this year in Minnesota, New Mexico, and Mississippi, to name just a few. “It’s important that everyone recognizes equal rights of people with different beliefs,” her attorney tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s important to her and to anyone [to know that you do] not have to be a second-class citizen in your own society.”
(Top photo: Kevin Pieper/The Baxter Bulletin)