The words “religious liberty” are on the lips of many of our elected officials today as they attempt to find any way possible to obstruct gay couples from getting married for a few more hours. But there’s another story out in the East Texas town of Hawkins that offers a more clear example of what “religious liberty” actually looks like, and how it works. 

In 2011, the city put a large sign on city property at the intersection of U.S. Highway 80 and Blackbourn St that reads “Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins.” The sign attracted little controversy in the town of 1,300, until earlier this month, when a Wisconsin non-profit called the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the city a letter requesting that the sign be removed from public property. 

City officials did some dissembling as they attempted to explain that the sign wasn’t about “religion,” it was about—well, that part is unclear. 

“That’s not a church, we’re not welcoming you to a particular church, that sign says ‘Jesus welcomes you,’” explained [Hawkins mayor Will] Rogers. “[Jesus is] the most googled and most popular man in the world.”

Passersby on Highway 80 say the banner represents their community.

Another supporter of the sign told KLTV that It’s not about a religion welcoming you, it’s about what a community wants,” and that “This is us welcoming you; this is what we believe in.” The popularity and/or Google-ranking of a person isn’t a factor when talking about whether they’re a religious figure, and it can be both about religion and what a community wants. It seems unlikely, should the FFRF challenge the sign in court, that Hawkins would have much chance of winning a legal battle. 

But as the issue has grown contentious in Hawkins, something interesting has happened: Residents of the town, who do seem to overwhelmingly support the sign, have taken to creating replicas of it and putting it in their yards, on t-shirts, and otherwise displaying the message proudly from their own property. 

And, as they’ve done so, they’ve received support from what may seem an unlikely source: Namely, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

[FRFF Attorney Sam] Grover said FFRF has no problem with the influx of mini-Jesus welcome signs lining the lawns.

“It’s fine for the people of Hawkins to individually put up signs on their property, about anything that they want including their religious beliefs,” said Grover. “The only problem that we have is when the government is used to promote a religion. I would just like to remind those in Hawkins that the Constitution is there to protect the minority’s voice from the tyranny of the majority.”

Hawkins hasn’t yet decided whether to remove the sign, or to fight the FRFF in court. But this, ultimately, is how “religious freedom” works, and that’s something that no one debates—even a group with the words “freedom from religion” in its name recognize that if people want to promote their religious beliefs to visitors by placing signs in their yard, they are welcome to do so. “Liberty” refers to individual freedom to express oneself, not to the collective ability of the state to favor a particular set of religious beliefs, or of people to see their religious beliefs reflected by the state. And as “religious liberty” becomes a buzzword in Texas, we’d do well observe what’s happening in Hawkins. 

(screenshot via KLTV)