FFRF, Abbott go ‘toe-to-toe’ in new lawsuit

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is ready to go “toe-to-toe” with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

FFRF will soon be filing a federal lawsuit over Abbott’s removal of FFRF’s duly approved Bill of Rights display from the Texas State Capitol late last year.

Abbott had previously said that Texas has the “muscle and firepower to go toe-to-toe” with groups such as FFRF, who try to “bully governmental bodies.”

Despite allowing a Christian nativity scene in the Capitol, Abbott forced FFRF’s solstice display to be taken down only three days after it had been erected on Dec. 18.

The whimsical exhibit, designed by artist Jake Fortin, commemorates 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 and Staff Attorney Sam Grover, with the help of Texas state Rep. Donna Howard and Austin FFRF member Arturo de Lozanne, obtained a permit last summer for the December display. 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 the co-defendant John Sneed, the board’s executive director, advising him to remove the FFRF display. Abbott lambasted FFRF’s 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 submerged in a jar of urine.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, a Preservation Board member, advised Sneed about FFRF’s display, saying “that, if I were him, I’d take it down.”

FFRF’s federal lawsuit, to be filed in February 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 FFRF and its member, de Lozanne.

The defendants’ action shows “unambiguous viewpoint discrimination” and was also motivated by “animus” toward FFRF and its nontheistic message, FFRF contends. Such action violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by favoring the “stand-alone Christian nativity scene” and disfavoring FFRF’s “nontheisic content.”

FFRF’s legal complaint details a “history of hostility directed against FFRF” by Abbott when he was attorney general. In December 2011, Abbott, on Fox News, actually warned FFRF to stay out of Texas altogether, stating: “Our message to the atheists is: Don’t mess with Texas or our nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments.”

“I want the Freedom From Religion Foundation to know that our office has a history of defending religious displays in this state,” Abbott added. He warned that FFRF should be aware that Texas “has the muscle and firepower to go toe-to-toe with these organizations that come from out of state trying to bully governmental bodies into tearing down things like nativity scenes.”

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.” During the same conference, Abbott said: “We are not going to either tolerate or accept these atheist groups trying to prevent that freedom of expression here in the state of Texas.”

As governor, Abbott has recently attacked FFRF for asking the Brewster County’s Sheriff’s Office to remove crosses from patrol vehicles, and has complained that the city of Orange, Texas, removed a nativity scene from city hall at FFRF’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.
FFRF will be seeking a judgment that each defendant violated the Establishment Clause and clauses protecting free speech, equal protection and due process rights of the plaintiffs. FFRF will be asking for damages and reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of FFRF by Richard L. Bolton, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott as co-counsel.

Freedom From Religion Foundation