Every year the legality of public nativity scenes generates court cases and headlines. San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene unsuccessfully sued Henderson County over its courthouse-fronting nativity scene in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2011, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) took issue with the same scene, forcing the county to put up a banner celebrating the winter solstice along with Mary, Jesus and Joseph.
This year, the seemingly inevitable controversy over putting an overtly religious display on public property is focused on the city of Orange in southeast Texas. In response to a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn there, the Orange County Atheists requested equal time in the form of a banner near the nativity. Rather than putting the banner up, the city of Orange took the nativity down.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott is very upset. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has continually held, public acknowledgement of our religious heritage is entirely consistent with the Constitution. The Constitution commands accommodation of religion rather than hostility towards it,” Abbott said Tuesday. “I strongly encourage the City of Orange to stand up to the demands of a select few who wish to see God thrown out of the public square, embrace the season of Christmas and restore the nativity scene immediately.”
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick one-upped Abbott, pushing the issue multiple times this week on social media and starting a petition to protect the "religious liberty" of the people of Orange. He's also promising to help the city pay for a legal battle, should it wish to engage in one.
Neither of the politicians has acknowledged that the atheist group didn't actually want the nativity taken down. "We asked for equality and the city of Orange chose to give it to us by removing the nativity scene instead of allowing our display alongside the the other displays," Orange County Atheists says in a statement. "This was not the result we were hoping for, but we are glad that the City of Orange has decided to treat all citizens equally by keeping the publicly owned property neutral when it comes to religious displays."
After the decision by the city to take down the nativity, the Orange County Atheists saw the sign for their stretch of adopted highway — one that's already been vandalized multiple times this year — riddled with bullet holes. Following their discovery of the vandalism, the group said they would not be cowed by what they viewed as intimidation.
The latest twist in this whole absurd saga happens today, as the Texas Capitol building will be graced with a secular, "Bill of Rights" nativity, provided by the FFRF and sponsored by Texas State Representative Donna Howard. It features Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Bill of Rights in a manger.