The mayor of Henderson County, Tennessee is standing firm against efforts by the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to force the removal of a scripture verse from the county's courthouse.
Attorney Rebecca Markert of the Wisconsin-based FFRF sent a letter to Mayor Dan Hughes on June 30 claiming that a local resident had complained about the Bible verse, etched on the wall of the courthouse in Lexington, Tennessee, which reads, “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: Mercy and truth shall go before thy face. Psalms 89:14.”
Markert insisted that the scripture, which has graced the courthouse for more than 50 years, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates a supposed “separation of church and state.”
The FFRF attorney warned Hughes that the Supreme Court “has said time and again, that the ‘First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”
Continued Markert: “It is inappropriate for the county to display this religious message on the wall of the Henderson County Courthouse because it conveys government support for religion. The Supreme Court has ruled, ‘The Establishment Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief.’”
Complaining that “the context of the religious message is particularly problematic,” Markert observed that “the verse alludes to the throne of a Judeo-Christian god, and it is embedded into the walls of the courthouse, the seat of government. This perpetuates the myth that our law is based on biblical principles, and it sends the message to private citizens with business at the courthouse that the justice they seek will be decided based on religion.”
The FFRF attorney concluded her terse epistle with a directive that Hughes “remove the religious text from the Henderson County Courthouse as soon as possible and inform us in writing of the actions taken to remedy this violation so we may notify our complainant.”
If the folks at the atheist FFRF were expecting a prompt and conciliatory reply, they were less than pleased by Mayor Hughes' response. Saying he was surprised by the opposition to Scripture on the public building, Hughes indicated that he had no plans to remove the verse, and was even considering the addition of another verse, Psalm 33:12, which states: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.”
In his reply to the FFRF, Hughes noted that most residents of Henderson County believe in God. “Our community is based on the belief of a true and living God,” he wrote.
Local residents appeared ready to stand by their mayor's decision, with one citizen, John Huffman, telling a local news source that the scripture “ought to stay right there. If somebody else wants something different, they’ll chisel it on there. There’s plenty of squares.”
Another resident, Adam Pinte, noted that “it’s a big Bible Belt around here, and you know, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to read it.”
For its part, the FFRF expressed its “alarm” over the mayor’s response, saying in a press release that it was “shocked by such an explicit endorsement of Christianity, which sends an ostracizing message to the community’s nonreligious citizens.”
The group went on to complain that Mayor Hughes' decision to keep the Bible verse on the courthouse “forsakes our godless Constitution and the ideals of our secular democracy. County officials have an obligation to adhere to the U.S. Constitution.”
The FFRF repeated its request “that the city remove the religious display from the courthouse and urges Hughes to honor the rights and consciences of all Henderson County residents who come from a variety of faiths and backgrounds.”
Should the mayor continue to stand on principle and refuse to obey the directive, it is expected that the FFRF will follow up with legal action against the county.