Some 5,000 people rallied in Athens on Saturday to support the nativity scene displayed outside the Henderson County Courthouse that has been challenged by an atheist group from Wisconsin, UPI reported. On the eve of the rally, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released a letter pledging his support to the town.

Emotions were sparked after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation mailed a letter on December 1 to Henderson County government objecting to the Nativity crèche in displayed front of the courthouse, but county officials have refused to dismantle the set. “We’ll remove it when hell freezes over,” County Commissioner Joe Hall has said.

Nathan Lorick, pastor of First Baptist Church Malakoff, was one of four local pastors who spoke at the hour-long event in the east Texas town. “We are seeing unfold before our very eyes, the beginning of persecution of Christianity in our nation,” Lorick told the assembled crowd. “It seems it is no longer acceptable to express and exhibit the doctrines of our faith in the nation that was founded upon those same doctrines. That is why thousands are here today.” The program also included prayer, Christmas carols, and patriotic songs, according to the Malakoff News.

Those gathered at the rally seemed eager to become foot soldiers in the “war on Christmas,” clutching signs with slogans that included “Texas Fought for Indepedence. Texas Fights for Christianity” and “Don’t Mess with my Manger.” WFAA reported that some in attendence likened the conflict to a “holy war.”

“By the end of the Nativity rally it was clear from the words of the rally’s speakers that they have higher goals than saving the inanimate figures that spurred the controversy,” Rich Flowers wrote in the Athens Review.

In his letter, Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote that his office cannot represent the county in court, but it would file legal briefs in support of the county. “Under a proper understanding of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, passive public displays acknowledging our Nation’s religious heritage—such as the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol or a nativity scene displayed on public grounds in December—are entirely constitutional,” Abbott wrote.

The founder of the FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, fired back, telling the Houston Chronicle that Abbott “comes off as a bully who favors tyranny of the majority over the personal rights of conscience protected by our Bill of Rights,” she said. “It is kind of the Wild West down there, but even in Texas, the Bill of Rights prevails.”