After successfully forcing the East Texas town of Hawkins to take down a religious sign on public property, and forcing a draw in a battle over a cross in a public park in Port Neches, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has returned to Texas. This time, they have something of a roadside icon in their sights: the two-decades-old signs welcoming Highway 90 drivers to the southwest Texas town of Hondo that reads “Welcome: This is God’s Country. Please don’t drive through it like Hell. Hondo, Texas.”
— FFRF (@FFRF) June 17, 2016
In a letter to Hondo mayor James Danner, FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor writes:
It is inappropriate for the city of Hondo to display religious signs that convey government preference for religion over nonreligion. The display of the religious message ‘This Is God’s Country’ on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public bodies from advancing, supporting, or promoting religion. It is also needlessly divisive, since it sends the message that nonbelievers are not welcome in the city.
“The message assumes a common god, yet imagine the public outrage had the city posted a sign that said, ‘This is Vishnu’s Country,’” Gaylor continued. “It is equally inflammatory and inappropriate to post a sign dedicating a city to the god of the bible.”
Gaylor went on to attempt a little humor.
Some people may want to flee ‘God’s Country’ faster than hell. Hondo officials could actually be encouraging drivers to speed with such signs.
The letter demands the immediate removal of the taxpayer-maintained signs from public property and likens them to the Hawkins sign, which reads: “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins.”
Which quite clearly does advance, support and promote Christianity. But do the Hondo signs send a similar message? Do they make non-believers feel unwelcome? Are they truly inflammatory?
Not to my mind. In trademark law, words can become generic and thus lose their protection. Aspirin, escalator, heroin, and thermos are all examples of words that were once protected as brands but have come to fill such holes in the English language that they’ve been collectively seized in order for us to communicate clearly and easily.
Unlike “Vishnu’s country,” the phrase “God’s country” occupies the same ground. It’s just a way to say a particular piece of land is beautiful. And, often as not, it’s used sarcastically to describe hideous hellscapes, like the chemical plant-strewn LaPorte Highway east of Houston, or I-35 between Austin and San Antonio. Not that the people of Hondo are calling their own hometown ugly, but often “God’s country” reminds me of how residents of Hereford will tell you that the stench billowing from the town’s many feedlots is “the smell of money.”
“God’s country” is no more an evangelical statement than the “God bless you” that follows a sneeze, and the idea that it would make a non-believer feel uncomfortable in Hondo is a stretch, to say the least.
What’s more, that “drive like Hell” part negates any religiosity one might try to find in the “God’s country” line. As opposed to a strictly religious context, using “hell” idiomatically would likely be regarded as cussing—a mere hair away, even, from taking the Lord’s name in vain—by the sort of sanctimonious preacher who would put up a “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins” sign. (Indeed, a 1971 Hondo Anvil-Herald article recalled that local church folks managed to get the “blasphemous” signs taken down for a time, but enough of Hondo’s “heathens, blasphemers, and just plain lovers of clever signs sent their shouts skywards” to see it that they were returned.)
Which brings up a point. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sign like Hondo’s in East Texas; in Southwest Texas it fits right in. It’s cowboy talk, not beyond-the-Pine-Curtain evangelism.
Finally, there is overall intent. What are these signs supposed to suggest? As Hondo city manager Frank Garza has pointed out, the message is driver safety, not religiosity. “God’s country” is just a throwaway phrase en route to a punchline, not a declaration of faith like “In God We Trust” or “One Nation, Under God.”
In many cases, the FFRF plays an important role in keeping church and state separate. Right now, they are battling a public high school in rural Tennessee that runs Bible verses on its website and where adults openly run prayer meetings during school hours; they’re fighting a chain of publicly-funded Texas charter schools run by an evangelist and shot through with Christian messages; and they’re taking on the Catholic church in Pennsylvania over its opposition to stricter enforcement of child sex abuse laws.
These are important battles and the FFRF is fighting them on firm First Amendment grounds. Public schools should not teach religion, and politics should not be preached from the pulpit, as the FFRF alleges is occurring in Pennsylvania.
But the signs in Hondo are neither significant nor unconstitutional. They merely employ a colloquialism in a joke that encourages driver safety. This effort to bring down the signs makes the FFRF seems petty, humorless, overreaching, and possessed of a lack better things to do, which they decidedly are not.
Often those that find themselves in the FFRF’s crosshairs realize (or become persuaded by lawyers) that they are on shaky constitutional ground, and rather than risking losing taxpayer money in expensive lawsuits, accede to the freethinkers, and rightly so.
That might not be the scenario in Hondo.
“There’s no way in hell we’re going to take those signs down,” Mayor Danner said earlier this week. They are a point of pride for the town. They’ve been up for more than 80 years and are enshrined on postcards. Tourists pose for pictures next to them. Hondo’s Wikipedia entry, in which the signs are modestly described as “somewhat famous,” points out that they have appeared in National Geographic and Little Texas’s now hilariously-dated video for “God Blessed Texas.”
Houston trial attorney and First Amendment expert David Furlow has an interesting take on the signs. Namely, that America’s earliest religious leaders would have seen them as an abominable sin that would do nothing but tempt heavenly vengeance:
“Roger Williams, William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation, and John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony all would have been utterly appalled that somebody would paint a sign saying ‘This is God’s Country,’” he tells Texas Monthly. “They would have lived in daily fear that the Almighty would have brought them a plague or an earthquake to smite them for their arrogance.”
Joking aside, Furlow believes that from a strictly legal point of view, “If a private person or church put that on a private billboard, it would be absolutely protected under the First Amendment. However, if it’s the state putting it up there, and if it’s taken seriously, which I don’t, it would be a violation of First Amendment church/state separation and under similar provisions of the Texas state constitution.”
“Now, is it worth litigating over?” he continues. “I respect the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but in my opinion the answer would be no.”
So far, the FFRF has declined to say whether or not they intend to sue over the matter. Stay tuned.