Because the Texas State Capitol has an open forum for holiday displays, here’s what the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up last December to counter a Nativity scene:
That would be a secular Nativity with the part of Jesus played by the Bill of Rights, flanked by Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty.
The display also featured this sign:
Just to reiterate: This was an open forum. FFRF applied for the space, just like everyone else, and they were given a green light.
That is, until December 22, when Governor Greg Abbott ordered the whole thing to be removed.
In a letter to John Sneed, the Executive Director of the State Preservation Board, Abbott explained his opposition:
First, far from promoting morals and the general welfare, the exhibit deliberately mocks Christians and Christianity. The Biblical scene of the newly born Jesus Christ lying in a manger in Bethlehem lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. Subjecting an image held sacred by millions of Texans to the Foundation’s tasteless sarcasm does nothing to promote morals and the general welfare. To the contrary, the Foundation’s spiteful message is intentionally designed to belittle and offend, which undermines rather than promotes any public purpose a display promoting the bill of rights might otherwise have had. The Board has allowed and should continue to allow diverse viewpoints to be expressed in Capitol displays. But it has no obligation to approve displays that purposefully mock the sincere religious beliefs of others.
Let’s point out a few facts:
There was no rule that a display had to promote morality or general welfare. Even if there was, you could make the argument that the birth of Christ is far worse than the Bill of Rights since Jesus represents a religion that says all non-believers will be tortured for eternity if they don’t accept His divinity. Hell, any religion that says you have to believe in God to be good is hardly a paragon of moral virtue.
But even more to Abbott’s point: How was this display offensive? It’s the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty, and a Bill of Rights.
It was a loaded gun away from being a Republican’s wet dream.
Not only did FFRF meet the requirement to be educational — which the Nativity scene most certainly wasn’t — they also had the required support from a state legislator, Rep. Donna Howard.
But Abbott didn’t care:
Second, the exhibit does not educate. According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s application, the purpose of the exhibit is “to educate the public about the religious and nonreligious diversity within the State.” But the exhibit does not depict any other religion, much less does it promote religious “diversity.” And it promotes “nonreligious diversity” only insofar as it mockingly depicts Christians’ religious worship. This is not an exhibit that spreads a secular message in an effort to educate the public about nonreligious viewpoints; it instead denigrates religious views held by others. There is nothing “educational” about that.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Abbott felt the Christian display was educational. After all, the Nativity scene honored a virgin birth, which I’m sure counted as sex education in Texas.
Abbott then pointed out that George Washington would totally worship Jesus over the Bill of Rights, and FFRF is promoting “ignorance and falsehood” to say otherwise:
Just one problem with that citation. It was fraudulent. Washington didn’t write it.
Tell me again who’s spreading “ignorance and falsehood”…?
That was the least of FFRF’s concerns, though. The more pressing matter was that Abbott shut down the atheists’ display, something he’d never even consider if we were talking about Christians. So FFRF filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott back in February:
FFRF’s federal lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Texas, Austin division, charges that Abbott and the other defendants violated the free speech, equal protection and due process rights of the organization.
The defendants’ action shows “unambiguous viewpoint discrimination” and was also motivated by “animus” toward FFRF and its nontheistic message, the state/church watchdog group contends. Such action violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by favoring the “stand-alone Christian nativity scene” and disfavoring FFRF’s “nontheistic content.”
“Gov. Abbott has consistently advocated for displays of religion in the public sphere, while actively opposing any expression of nonreligious principles,” FFRF notes.
The group is seeking a judgment that each defendant violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and clauses protecting free speech and equal protect rights and due process rights of the plaintiffs. It is asking for damages and reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.
There was finally some good news this week: District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that the lawsuit could proceed — despite Abbott’s best efforts to throw it out — because the atheists had a legitimate case on First Amendment grounds.
FFRF has established genuine issues of material fact with regard to its freedom of
speech claim and claim under the Establishment Clause.
The lawsuit was rejected on other counts, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that the lawsuit will get a hearing on its merits.
“We’re pleased our federal lawsuit has been ruled to have merit,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. It appears there will either be a bench trial, or else an appeal of the judge’s ruling.
It’s hard to see how Abbott’s censorship efforts can be justified… then again, this is Texas. Anything can happen. We’ll see what the judge says.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)