ATHENS—The debate over religious expression in the public square will be center stage as church groups gather in Athens at noon on Dec. 17 to protest an atheist organization’s demand that the annual nativity scene be removed from the Henderson County courthouse lawn.
A Facebook page for the event stated: “There is a rally being planned … to respond to the threat to the nativity scene on the courthouse square. Organizers said they are hoping that Christians can use this rally to come together in love, to unite and show the world the true spirit of Christ and Christmas.”
Organizers were sponsoring a food drive benefiting area food banks in conjunction with the rally. Rally participants were asked to bring non-perishable food items for collection. “We’re expecting a large turnout,” said one of the rally organizers, Nathan Lorick, pastor of First Baptist Church Malakoff.
Since Lorick’s appearance on the Fox and Friends television show on Dec. 8, he said he has been inundated with calls and e-mails from across the country and around the world—including Iraq and Honduras—in support of efforts to keep the nativity in place. Supporters from as far away as Oklahoma said they planned to attend.
The nativity is only part of an annual display set up by the community organization Light Up Athens. Also on the lawn of the county courthouse are Santa and elves. Most of the displays are more festive than religious.
But the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) charges the nativity scene constitutes an endorsement of religion by the government. Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders said the county's attorney had reviewed pertinent cases and found Henderson County to be in compliance with federal law.
The atheist organization’s request rattled enough people to make national headlines. When news of the demand broke, Lorick and fellow pastors Erick Graham, Robert Welch, and Derrick Rogers put out a YouTube invitation for all pastors in the area to meet and determine a plan of action to address what Lorick called another attack on the freedom of speech by Christians.
More than 70 area pastors from various denominations gathered on Dec. 9. That so many pastors from different denominations came together with a common cause was a sign to Lorick that God’s hand is at work in Henderson County.
“I believe this rally is an answer to prayer,” Graham added in an e-mail. He pastors Sand Springs Baptist Church in Athens.
“We have been asking God to push back the powers of darkness in our county and for God’s people to move forward with the power of the gospel,” he said.
Welch, pastor of Rock Hill Baptist Church in Brownsboro, also wrote about his reasons for supporting the rally.
“The majority of Americans still believe that Christ is the meaning of Christmas and the reason for their celebration,” Welch said. “Over the past decade I’ve watched the politically correct movement aggressively seek to limit the expression of this belief. We who believe Christ is the meaning of Christmas can sit silently or stand and speak out.”
Graham agreed that Christian expression has become stifled and believers, to a degree, are to blame for letting it happen.
“Our Christian liberties have been taken little by little and we have been backing up bit by bit. How far do you have to back up before you are backed against a wall?” Graham asked.
All of the pastors said the rally would be a positive show of faith and unity among believers and a demonstration of love to the community.
Graham admitted there is the potential for heated rhetoric and disruptive actions. One disagreeing post on the Facebook page stated, “I'm the one coming to kick the baby jeebus out of the public square back into your homes and churches where he belongs. Why force your nonsense on everyone else?”
The pastors are encouraging believers not to react angrily to such disagreeable words or actions but, instead, be guided by Christian principles.
Citing Galatians 5:22, Graham said, “We are going to act with love … and self-control instead of anger and bitterness. In a time where Christians are known for what we are against, we want to show that we are for some things too.”
Since his Fox and Friends appearance, Lorick as been interviewed on local and national TV and radio shows such as Glenn Beck and by Focus on the Family and Family Research Council. Because of the media attention leading up to Saturday’s rally, Lorick saids the event could have a national platform.
The other pastors agree and want to ensure that what is seen and heard is for the glory of God.
Welch said: “It’s an opportunity for us to visually show our support of our county officials who have refused to remove the nativity and to pray for them. It’s an opportunity for the church to communicate the love of Christ to our community. It’s an opportunity for Henderson County Christians to set a precedent that might encourage believers all over our country to stand up to the threat of the politically correct movement and keep Christ in Christmas.”
Lorick said the gathering “is not a pep rally for believers. It is a call for people to contend for the faith.”
Ultimately, it’s not about the nativity seen, he said. The demand to have the symbol of Christmas removed is only a symptom of the disease that plagues the nation. The pastors said America was founded on biblical principles and yet to assert those principles in word or deed incites angry protests.
“There are very real and daily examples in America where Christianity is being repressed,” Lorick said.
He noted the visceral commentary targeting outspoken Christian Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He also cited New York City’s recent court victory that lets stand a ban on churches renting New York City public schools for worship services.
Lorick continued, “It’s not just defending the symbol of our faith but the fact that this nation was built on Christian and biblical foundations.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a banner to a Henderson County resident who has agreed to post it on the courthouse law. The organization argued the nativity display is a de facto public forum and they are adding their comments. The banner states: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”
Lorick said the FFRF has the same right as religious organizations to freedom of speech. But he argued the banner’s message is degrading to all religions and is not an example of civil discourse.