has filed its defense in the lawsuit by the American Humanist Association
over the annual Nativity display
on the courthouse lawn and the county's refusal to allow humanists to post a "Happy Solstice" banner as a seasonal observance nearby.
The answer by private Little Rock lawyers Jason Owens and Michael Rainwater for County Judge Mickey Pendergrass
and other defendants throws the kitchen sink at the lawsuit. Their arguments:
The Humanist Association has no standing. The display doesn't belong to the county (it's erected each year by lawyer Rick Spencer,
but the county owns the land on which it stands). The humanists waited too late, until the 2014 holiday season had begun, to request a display of their own "to create disorder." (Not a lot of prep would have been necessary to put up a banner.) Religious displays are allowed constitutionally so long as a reasonable
(their emphasis) observer would conclude it was not meant to promote religion. The county passed a resolution meant to put a larger gloss on the event and leased the land so it would not be public land for purposes of the display. (Could they not also lease a square foot or so to the Humanists and similarly adopt a resolution touting a "legacy of freedom" in permitting such a display?) The county has a legitimate secular interest in having the holiday display, to encourage visitors to town to spend money.
Finally, says Baxter County, try again next year. The message, however, seems to hint that the Humanists will be denied and face having to go to court again, perhaps in hope of getting equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution by 2016. Said the answer:
At this point in time, the issue in the Plaintiffs lawsuit is moot. The 2014 holiday season is over. Instead of filing a lawsuit, the Plaintiffs need merely apply to the County for permission to use the courthouse lawn for a 2015 seasonal holiday display. The County will then respond. There will be time for dialogue and an opportunity to follow the normal processes for resolving disputes with the County. If the Plaintiffs are still not satisfied, litigation can be timely
Baxter County wants a jury trial of this constitutional question raised in this lawsuit. Of course. This is a Christian country isn't it, full of good Christians ready for jury duty.
In other words, Baxter County plans massive resistance, at whatever legal cost, to adding a very modest alternative message to a holiday display currently limited to a single religion. OK, it's true. A Santa and Christmas tree have been thrown in to secularize the display a touch.
I still believe odds are strong for an outcome like that ordered by federal Judge Susan Webber Wright
, a stalwart Republican, in the case of the attempt by the state to allow only a privately owned Nativity on a patch of state Capitol ground while denying a winter solstice display by free thinkers. The battle for a Christian monopoly Capitol holiday displays was lost.
Here's the full document.