The Freedom From Religion Foundation has prevailed in federal court against Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who ordered the removal of FFRF's winter solstice Bill of Rights Nativity from the Texas Capitol in 2015.
In his decision, handed down late on Friday, Oct. 13, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, ruled that Abbott violated FFRF's free speech rights.
FFRF had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Day, in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The display, depicting founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator.
Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF's display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.
"Defendants have justified removal of FFRF's exhibit by arguing the exhibit's satirical tone rendered it offensive to some portion of the population. That is viewpoint discrimination," writes Sparks in a 24-page ruling. The court also held that a reasonable official in Governor Abbott's position would have known that removing FFRF's display based on its viewpoint would violate FFRF's First Amendment rights, thus FFRF can sue Governor Abbott in his personal capacity.
"It is 'beyond debate' the law prohibits viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum," Sparks ruled.
Sparks did not find that Abbott's actions violated the Establishment Clause, but also ruled in FFRF's favor that FFRF has the right to depose the governor for one hour. Abbott had fought the request for a deposition.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor praised the ruling as a very strong decision for FFRF, for free speech and for the rights of nonbelieving citizens. "We'd rather keep divisive religious — and irreligious — views out of state capitols. But if the government creates public forums, and permits Christian nativities in them, there must be room at the inn for the rest of us."
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 29,000 nonreligious members. It requested the right to put up a December display at the request of some of its more than 1,200 Texas members.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Governor Greg Abbott, Cause No. A-16-CA-00233-SS. FFRF was represented by Attorney Richard L. Bolton with FFRF Attorney Sam Grover as co-counsel. More history about the case may be found here.