12/24/15

Harrison County Nativity Scene Joined By Atheist Sign

Proven├žal Nativity scene
Proven├žal Nativity scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nativity scenes do not belong on government-owned property. They are perfectly fine on private property (e.g., your front yard, the front yard of your church, the front yard of a business you own), but placing them on government property amounts to the sort of promotion of religion that violates the separation of church and state. Having said that, it is not at all uncommon to encounter nativity scenes in government buildings this time of year in many predominately Christian parts of the United States. And nowhere is more predominately Christian than right here in Mississippi!

The Harrison County courthouse in Gulfport has a nativity scene in their lobby. The American Humanist Association had threatened the county with a lawsuit but recently called it off. Why? Harrison County agreed to allow the addition of a secular display to join the nativity scene. Specifically, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Humanist, Atheist and Freethinking Association was permitted to put up a sign next to the display.

According to the legal director of the American Humanist Association, David Niose, the group would prefer that there would be no religious displays of any kind in the Harrison County courthouse. I agree. This would be the optimal situation. Religious displays of any kind do not belong on government property. But if they are going to be there, the way to avoid lawsuits like this is to allow alternatives.

The moment the government, Harrison County in this case, agrees to allow a Christian display, they must allow displays from any other group (e.g., humanists, atheists, Satanists). If they do not, then it appears that they are promoting one religion over others in violation of the Constitution. When they do this, lawsuits will follow and are likely to be successful.

From the Clarion-Ledger article reporting on this story:
Tim Holleman, attorney for the county Board of Supervisors, said his legal research indicates the county can keep the Nativity scene as long as it allows free expression of other views, hence permission for the Coast group to put up its sign.
Yep. That's it exactly. When government officials want a nativity scene on government property, they can avoid lawsuits by allowing alternative displays from any group who wants to add one. Of course, the risk they run by allowing such alternative displays is that they will get some that are silly and/or mildly offensive. If they do not want to risk this, they have another option: not allowing any religious displays.

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