The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit today against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his removal of the group's Bill of Rights display from the Capitol.
Abbott downed FFRF's solstice display, intended to counter a Christian nativity scene in the Statehouse, only three days after the permitted display had been erected on Dec. 18.
The whimsical exhibit commemorated the "birth" of the Bill of Rights, depicting the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty crowded adoringly around a manger scene containing the constitutional document.
FFRF obtained a permit last summer for the December display, and a Texas legislator sponsored it. Also approved was an explanatory Winter Solstice sign promoting state/church separation, which pointed out that the Bill of Rights was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791.
Abbott, who chairs the Texas State Preservation Board that approves Capitol displays, sent a letter Dec. 21 to co-defendant John Sneed, the board's executive director, advising him to remove the FFRF display. Abbott lambasted the exhibit as indecent and mocking, implied it would promote public immorality, had no educational purpose and compared it to "Piss Christ," a controversial 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano showing a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine.
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."
The organization's legal complaint details a "history of hostility directed against FFRF" by Abbott when he was the state attorney general. In December 2011, Abbott, on Fox News, told the group to keep out of Texas, stating: "Our message to the atheists is: Don't mess with Texas or our nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments."
In October 2012, Abbott again attacked FFRF during a press conference: "We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs."
As governor, Abbott has assailed FFRF for asking the Brewster County's Sheriff's Office to remove crosses from patrol vehicles, and has complained when Orange, Texas, took down a nativity scene from city hall at the organization's behest.
"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.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit with more than 23,000 members, including approximately 1,000 individuals in Texas.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of FFRF by Richard L. Bolton, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott as co-counsel.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is unveiling a freethought badge to reward young nonbelievers and challenge the Boy Scouts of America's discrimination against the nonreligious. The badge, featuring a red "A" based on a symbol of atheism and agnosticism popularized by distinguished scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins, is being issued in collaboration with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.
The Boy Scouts of America formally discriminates against nonreligious boys and their families, officially excluding atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers. Currently, the organization maintains "that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God."
"The Freedom From Religion Foundation maintains instead that no one who discriminates against the nonreligious can grow into the best kind of citizen," says FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is co-president of FFRF with her husband Dan Barker.
"It's what you do — not what you believe — that makes you a good person," adds Barker, a former evangelical minister who is also co-founder of The Clergy Project, a support group for ministers who lose their faith.
FFRF, at the urging of its member Richard Kirschman, has produced a badge similar to the Boy Scouts' merit badges, which are typically sewn on uniforms or sashes.
Scouts who wish to earn this badge are asked to help disprove the group's misguided claim that nonbelievers cannot be good citizens. The requirements, paralleling typical merit badge requirements, ask Scouts to learn about secularism and the rich history of dissent from religion.
"By excluding boys from nonreligious families, the Boy Scouts of America is practicing the same kind of baseless prejudice it exhibited for so long against gay Scouts," comments Robyn E. Blumner, president and CEO of both the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science and the Center for Inquiry. "There is no doubt that a young man can be honorable, diligent, wholesome and represent the best that America has to offer while not subscribing to a religious faith. For the association to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate ugly stereotypes and open millions of boys up to exclusion and bullying."
Boy Scouts of America has recently ended its ban against gays, but the groups note that it should also be socially unacceptable to exclude nonreligious boys and their families from an organization that claims, "Any boy may join" and receives substantial public school and governmental support.
Because this unauthorized "badge" is intended to protest the organization's policy, it's expected that Scouts won't be able to work with a typical merit badge counselor to demonstrate the completion of requirements. So FFRF will ask a parent, guardian, sibling over the age of 18, teacher or another adult to attest that Scouts have qualified. At Richard Dawkins' suggestion, the Scout is also required to send FFRF a short essay addressing the Boy Scouts of America's claim that nonbelievers can't be good citizens. FFRF will not charge Scouts money for the badge.
The badge is intended to reward Boy Scouts who have persevered in an organization that basically has instituted a "Don't ask, don't tell'" policy about atheist and agnostic participants, but has regularly expelled open nonbelievers. While Boy Scouts officials dictate the discriminatory policy, scouting troops vary widely in their enforcement of the ban, so it's believed many Scouts are nonreligious.
"If any young person fulfills the requirements, we'd be delighted to reward them with this badge," adds Gaylor. "Many nonreligious students who might otherwise wish to join the Boy Scouts Association, knowing of its bigoted policy, don't try. This is their chance to be rewarded for critical thinking and to earn a keepsake at the same time. We hope someday very soon that Boy Scouts of America itself will change policy and adopt its own official merit badge rewarding critical thinking."