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.