LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — No Nativity scene or any secular holiday displays can take root on the courthouse lawn this year, Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass said Wednesday.
His decision was in response to a federal judge's ruling earlier this month that a Nativity scene displayed for more than a decade at the courthouse violates the U.S. Constitution and that the county must either stop placing any religious seasonal displays on the property or create a public forum allowing displays by all religions and viewpoints.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks had also dismissed a complaint against Pendergrass, in his personal capacity, in the lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association and Mountain Home resident Dessa Blackthorn. Blackthorn had filed the lawsuit last December after Pendergrass denied at least two requests to place a "Happy Winter Solstice" banner on the lawn.
Pendergrass denied the banner because it would have blocked a Christmas tree display, he said Wednesday at a news conference and in a statement later posted on the county's website.
"I am a Christian and have a strong faith in God and in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. After much study of the Scriptures and of history, I made a personal choice many years ago to not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. But as your elected official and as your public servant, I have defended the rights, beliefs and traditions of the vast majority of the citizens of Baxter County against the few that fought to take them away," he said.
Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association, was pleased with the decision. As for the judge's comments: "I think it's entirely inappropriate for a government official to be making remarks about one religion, Christianity, over another. For him to make those remarks is pretty egregious given his past history with this issue."
Pendergrass said the county will display a Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn, but no secular items. He urged private citizens to display secular items on their property.
The county will not appeal the ruling, but Pendergrass said it will ask the federal judge to reduce the more than $70,000 in attorneys' fees requested by the association.