Texas governor lambasted for censoring FFRF display

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to remove FFRF’s Bill of Rights “nativity” display from the State Capitol building has been met with a fair amount of contempt . . . and deservedly so.

On Dec. 22, just days after the Bill of Rights scene was erected, Abbott, a Republican, ordered the display removed from a lower-level area in the Capitol. FFRF had a permit and had obtained necessary sponsorship by a state legislator (Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin) to display the 5-foot-high metal scene.

FFRF is preparing to file a lawsuit against Abbott.

Dozens of media outlets reported on the issue in late December, and several were editorials or op-eds, siding with FFRF.

A Dec. 24 Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial, “Bill of Rights protects this nativity scene,” put it succinctly and accurately: “Bill of Rights protections often make people uncomfortable. This display should have come under First Amendment protection. Abbott’s urging its removal was simply wrong.”

“Actually, it was a small tableau stuck in an innocuous corner of the building,” writes the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker. “The image in question was placed there by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which had been approved to place a depiction of the four figures surrounding the Bill of Rights, in what can only be seen as a charming homage to the Nativity scene. This was a major honor, especially considering that the Legislature places a Christmas tree in both chambers, but keeps the Menorah outside the Capitol gates.”

But Abbott would not have it. He sent a letter on Dec. 22 telling John Sneed, executive director of the State Preservation Board, to remove the exhibit from the Capitol’s basement gallery because it “violates general standards of decency and intentionally disrespects the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans.” He added, “Far from promoting morals and the general welfare, the exhibit deliberately mocks Christians and Christianity.”

Hemant Mahta, writer of The Friendly Atheist blog on Patheos, also chimed in.

“Even more to Abbott’s point: How is this display offensive?” he wrote. “It’s the founding fathers, the Statue of Liberty, and a Bill of Rights. It’s a loaded gun away from being a Republican’s wet dream.”

Rep. Howard told the Austin American-Statesman how she was frustrated by Abbott’s actions.

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

And Texas Monthly writer Doyin Oyeniyi pointed out the irony of Abbott’s decision.

“It’s safe to say that the display’s location, which the [Texas] Tribune described as ‘hardly a high-traffic area,’ would’ve received much attention,” Oyeniyi wrote. “By using his position to remove a display that he personally found offensive, the governor has brought even more attention to 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.”

FFRF Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in his blog: “In perhaps the greatest stroke of poetic justice I’ve ever seen, Abbott claims that our ‘exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood’ and cites 17 lines of a George Washington quote — a quote that is fraudulent. Yes, you read that correctly. Abbott accused our exhibit of ‘promoting ignorance and falsehood,’ then quoted, at length, erroneous history to support his position.”

Leif Reigstad of the Houston Press also commented on the use of the false Washington quote. “Here is a George Washington quote Abbott might want to consider next time he jettisons a group’s display from the Capitol: ‘If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.'”

See you in court, Gov. Abbott.

Freedom From Religion Foundation