Governor Abbott Had A Bill Of Rights “Nativity” Scene Removed From The Capitol

The display was to promote the separation of church and state, but it seems the governor missed that point.

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(AP Photo/David Eggert)

Earlier in December, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) announced that they’d been approved to erect a Bill of Rights “nativity” scene in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol. The display featured Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty gathered around the Bill of Rights, which was placed in a manger. Accompanying that display was a sign that read “Happy Winter Solstice” and read: “At this Season of the Winter Solstice, we honor reason and the Bill of Rights (Adopted December 15, 1791).” It ended with a statement of the foundation’s constant goal: “Keep State & Church Separate.”

The exhibit went up on December 18 and managed to last a few days before Governor Abbott caught wind of it. By Tuesday, he’d written a letter to John Sneed, the State Preservation Board’s executive director, demanding that the display be removed. According to The Texas Tribune, Sneed then sent a picture of the display to Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who advised that he remove it.

“The governor wanted it down, and I told John that, if I were him, I’d take it down,” Geren told the Tribune. “It was an inappropriate exhibit.”

Sneed obliged. From the governor’s perspective, the display “mocks Christians and Christianity” and it failed to “educate the public about the religious and nonreligious diversity within the State,” a purpose the foundation set forth in their application. Apparently the governor doesn’t consider the celebration of the Winter Solstice to be religious.

He also states that it’s of no interest to the general public.

Third, the general public does not have a “direct interest” in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s purpose. That organization is plainly hostile to religion and desires to mock it—or, more accurately, to mock our Nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. But it is erroneous to conflate the foundation’s private purpose with the public’s purpose. If the Foundation simply wanted to promote the Bill of Rights or even to promote the supposed virtues of secularism, its effort might have some public purpose. But it is hard to imagine how the general public ever could have a direct interest in mocking others’ religious beliefs.

These are strong words. Strong words that don’t actually address the message that the foundation and the exhibit state pretty explicitly in both the inclusion of the Bill of Rights and on their sign: the separation of church and state. Even if the US has a “Judeo-Christian heritage,” we can’t ignore that the separation of church and state is included in the First Amendment. Well, you can ignore it, as Abbott proves.

He also overlooked another important part of the First Amendment: the freedom of speech. According to State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who sponsored the display, Abbott let his personal beliefs intrude on the foundation’s rights to express their opinion.

“The governor has, on numerous occasions, commented on the importance of his faith as well as the importance of religious freedom,” Howard told the Austin American-Statesman. “Unfortunately, in removing this display he is silencing a viewpoint which differs from his own. I find that very disappointing.”

In a news release by the FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor co-president of foundation stated that they will be “pursuing legal redress,” but it’s unclear what they’ll be able to do before the holidays are over.

I can’t help but wonder if this was really worth it on the part of Abbott. It’s safe to say that the display’s location, which the Tribune described as “hardly a high-traffic area,” would’ve received much attention. By using his position to remove a display that he personally found offensive, the governor has brought even more attention to it. He’s reigniting a debate that began last year when the Preservation Board first approved a nativity scene for display at the Capitol.

A debate that continued earlier this month, when Abbott expressed support for the city of Orange, which removed a nativity scene from City Hall after an atheist group requested to put a banner up as well. He stated that the “Constitution commands accommodation of religion rather than hostility towards it.”

It’s great if Abbott wants to fight for the “accommodation of religion,” but that accommodation should include other religious and nonreligious beliefs, not just Christianity. And that accommodation should definitely extend beyond Biblical displays of a Middle Eastern family in need to present-day Middle Eastern families in need.

The FFRF claims to to have nearly 1,000 members in Texas. Even if that number is small in contrast to the population of the great state of Texas, it still represent Texans. Texans whose views should be just as protected and respected as majority beliefs.

With that in mind, no matter what your religious or nonreligious beliefs, we wish you a hearty happy holidays!

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  • Show me the words “separation of church and state” in the First Amendment.

    • Mark Coopers

      ^ What a ridiculous attempt at wordplay! The Constitution also does not have the phrase: “separation of gasoline and matches”.
      .
      Does this mean that you are going to put those two items together? (No, unless you’re a fool.)

      • Lordy save us from another shadowy “penumbra” fan. Try reading and not imputing.

        • Mark Coopers

          And, let us be saved from strict readers. If one wants to read it strictly, you won’t find the following words: food, medicine, airplane, internet, or electricity. How will strict readers regulate those items? If you quote the Commerce Clause, then I’m afraid that you’re “imputing” – your word not mine.
          .
          The point is to not be limited by a strict reading, otherwise we will be amending the thing as much as the Texas Constitution (which is an absurd amount of times) – society and times change, the Constitution has to be flexible enough to adapt. This flexibility is what I consider one of the genius factors created by the Founding Fathers.
          .
          One cannot argue with this unless one is against the Founding Fathers.

      • José

        Yes, the original question is rather pointless. A far superior question is “who says that the First Amendment means ‘separation of church and state’, and what by authority do they make such a claim?” Surely Mr. Huston is wise enough to know the answer.

    • adbass

      Article 3 Section 1 of the Constitution grants the rights and duty to interpret the Constitution to the Supreme Court of the United States. And they have done so. Every Supreme Court Justice EVER has identified as a Christian…and yet “Separation” has won the day each time it has been challenged. They have ruled so not because of their religious beliefs but in spite of them.

    • Bob Martinelli

      Show me assault weapons in the second amendment? Moron.

  • José

    The Capitol belongs to the people of the State of Texas. Abbott merely has the privilege of occupying an office there for now. What right does he have to demand that a display be removed, merely on the account that he finds it distasteful? That’s petty, arrogant, and selfish.

    Whether or not Abbott likes the Bill of Rights—all of it—he is obliged to support it and the rest of the US Constitution. If he cannot do so then he needs to find another job because clearly he is not qualified to be Governor.

  • Kris Weibel

    Texas – You Own This Asswipe. Note to yourself: votes have consequences.

  • Michael Pickel, Brunswick ME

    Why do those who are quick to say that “separation of church and state” is not specifically found in the First Amendment tend to overlook that “private ownership of assault weapons” is implied in the Second?

    • José

      Because they aim to be provocative instead of meaningful. It’s more fun and a lot less work, I reckon.

  • helentroy4

    In his letter, Abbott also used quotes from a purported George Washington diary that has been debunked and proven to be a forgery.