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.”
— FFRF (@FFRF) December 22, 2015
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!