Thousands attended a noon "Rally for the Nativity" outside the Henderson County courthouse Saturday to show their support for a nativity scene erected on the lawn.
County officials this month received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group asked that the nativity scene be removed.
County Judge Richard Sanders says the county is complying with federal law and the nativity scene will remain. The holiday display also includes snowmen, reindeer and Christmas trees.
Four pastors who organized Saturday's rally spoke during the hour-long event.
Pastor Nathan Lorick of First Baptist Church in Malakoff called the controversy in Athens "the beginning of persecution of Christianity in our nation," according to the Athens Daily Review.
In its letter the FFRF asked to be allowed to put up its own banner. According to the Athens Daily Review the banner reads:
"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."
County officials said the national group based in Wisconsin must formally request its own banner at Commissioners Court. The last meeting before Christmas is Tuesday, but the issue of the nativity scene is not on the agenda.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says it is a nonprofit educational charity, and the nation's largest association of freethinkers including atheists and agnostics working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate. The group says it also works to educate the public on non-theism.
The Texas attorney general has sent a letter to Judge Sanders offering his help if the county is sued over its nativity scene.
Attorney General Greg Abbott said his office cannot represent the county in court, but would file legal briefs in support.
Athens is 70 miles southeast of Dallas.