In an unfortunate legal and fiscal miscalculation, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has decided to appeal the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s recent constitutional triumph.
Last month, FFRF won in federal court against Abbott, who had ordered the removal of its winter solstice display and Bill of Rights nativity from the state Capitol in December 2015. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas, declared on June 19 that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 32,000 nonreligious members, including over 1,400 in Texas, had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the winter solstice and Bill of Rights at the Texas Capitol in response to a Christian nativity there. The whimsical exhibit, depicting the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty honoring 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.
The district court judge noted that Abbott’s move was a textbook example of illegal viewpoint discrimination. “Defendants violated FFRF’s First Amendment rights and engaged in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when the FFRF exhibit was removed from the Texas Capitol building under the circumstances of this case,” Sparks ruled.
The Texas governor and the executive director of the Texas State Preservation Board have filed notice that they're appealing the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
FFRF is disappointed but not surprised at the governor’s decision to prolong the case.
“Abbott, both as Texas AG and governor, has a history of displaying hostility to FFRF and other nonbelievers,” notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “His decision to appeal continues his pattern of not playing fair with the rights of nonreligious citizens.”
Not only is this a constitutionally wrongheaded and futile quest, it also means a further waste of tax resources that could be put to productive use in the service of the good citizens of Texas.
“This is a settled area of law,” says FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover. “By appealing this decision, Gov. Abbott is costing Texas taxpayers more money — in a case that will already cost the state more than $200,000 — in an attempt to undermine one of the most foundational rights in our Constitution. Whether they agree with FFRF’s message or not, all citizens who value the right to free speech should be outraged by the governor’s decision to appeal this ruling.”
Back in October 2017, FFRF received an initial ruling in its favor that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated its free speech rights. Two claims were subsequently dismissed, clearing the path for FFRF’s victorious final judgment.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Gov. Greg Abbott, Cause No. A-16-CA-00233-SS. FFRF is represented by Attorney Richard L. Bolton with FFRF attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott serving as co-counsel.