- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. (AP) - A disclaimer posted with a Nativity scene at an Arkansas courthouse did not protect Baxter County officials from a federal lawsuit.

The American Humanist Association and a local resident filed a lawsuit Tuesday saying the display is an improper endorsement of religion and asking that the creche be taken down. They said the chief administrator of the county has refused requests to put up a “Happy Solstice” banner.

“The display is overwhelmingly Christian with a few random non-Nativity Christmas-themed elements,” Little Rock lawyer J.G. “Gerry” Schulze wrote in his lawsuit. The court filing says local resident and business owner Dessa Blackthorn was “injured and aggrieved” when the creche went up on the courthouse lawn.

“We want everybody to be able to represent themselves and show what they believe during this holiday season, because December has a lot of different holidays,” Blackthorn told The Baxter Bulletin for a story published Wednesday.

County Judge Mickey Pendergrass, the top administrator for Baxter County, said he had not seen the lawsuit. He addressed previous complaints by saying he didn’t want “hundreds” of display proposed for the courthouse lawn.

Last January, after Pendergrass wouldn’t approve a banner to mark the winter solstice, the humanists’ group asked that Baxter County not put up a Nativity scene unless other displays were also allowed.

The newspaper reported it couldn’t reach the group Tuesday because it was closed for the holidays. A lawyer for the group told The Associated Press in an email Wednesday that expanding the display to include other viewpoints is probably not an option.

“Given the history of the Baxter County display, and the fact that Christianity has always been its central and predominant theme and purpose, we do not feel that expansion will negate the perception of Christian-preference,” attorney Monica Miller wrote.

This fall, the Baxter County Quorum Court added a disclaimer to the display, saying private residents were responsible, not the county.

“Whatever your religion or beliefs, enjoy the holidays,” the disclaimer says, in part.

The family of Mountain Home lawyer F.S. “Rick” Spencer has put up the nativity scene for years in memory of his late wife, Coralee Faith Spencer. Also on the lawn are a Christmas tree and a depiction of Santa Claus.

Schulze said he hopes for a resolution before next year’s holiday season.

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