Reason is not prevailing (yet) in Athens, Texas

The community of Athens, Texas, and much of the country is in a state of hysteria over FFRF’s very modest request to place an “equal time” Winter Solstice” banner by the nativity display on the Henderson County (Texas) Courthouse square. The FFRF office has been harassed off and on for a week by Texas crank callers (from “Don’t mess with Texas” to “Don’t you know what fucking Christmas is all about?”) and some commissioners have said they’d put up our sign “when hell freezes over.” About 5,000 “Christian soldiers” showed up in Athens to rally against FFRF on Saturday.

Now Texas Attorney General Greg Abott has intervened. Read his letter here. Below is FFRF’s response to Abbott:

[email protected]

The Honorable Greg Abbott
Attorney General of Texas
Office of the Attorney General
PO Box 12548
Austin, TX 78711-2548

Re: Favoritism of Christian displays on government property

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

It has come to our attention that you have sent a letter to a Henderson County official in support for its inappropriate display of a Christian devotional scene every December on courthouse grounds.

Under a proper understanding of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, a nativity scene or other religious display may not be displayed as the sole focus on government property, or by courthouse entrances. In the two relevant cases, Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 625 (1989)(Justice O’Connor concurring) and Lynch v. Donnelly 465 U.S. 668 (1984)(Justice O’Connor concurring), the Supreme Court agreed that:

Sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

In McCreary County v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005)(barring Ten Commandments inside courthouses), O’Connor added:

When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship. In the marketplace of ideas, the government has vast resources and special status. Government religious expression therefore risks crowding out private observance and distorting the natural interplay between competing beliefs. Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs. Tying secular and religious authority together poses risks to both.

You freely cite a line by former Justice Douglas in Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952)(“We are a religious people . . .”) while failing to note that in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 563 (1961) (Douglas, J. dissenting), Justice Douglas clarified his statement in Zorach:

But . . . if a religious leaven is to be worked into the affairs of our people, it is to be done by individuals and groups, not by the Government. This necessarily means, first, that the dogma, creed, scruples or practices of no religious group or sect are to be preferred over those of any others.

This is precisely what is happening in Henderson County, Texas: The dogma, creed, scruples or practices of one religious group are preferred over those of others. The imprimatur of the county of Henderson, and now the imprimatur of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are being used to endorse Christianity. When the county allows this manger scene to be erected as the sole focus of a display dominating an entire corner of the County Courthouse Square, it conveys an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The nativity display depicts the mythological birth of Jesus, and is a symbol of what Christians regard as their most holy moment — the birth of the savior who must be worshipped to avoid damnation. This belief is not shared by county citizens who are nonChristian, Jews, Muslims, etc., or by the significant and fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — the nonreligious, at 15% of the population.

There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed, as required by the Texas State Constitution:

No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship. (Tex. Const. art. 1, § 6)

No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes. (Tex. Const. art. 1, § 7)

Further, if a government decides to create a public forum, as it now appears Henderson County has done by permitting a group to place objects on its lawn, it cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination or censorship. Such censorship is the stated intention of at least one Henderson County commissioner, who was quoted in a television interview saying other religious groups could place displays, but our banner could never be approved. (FFRF’s sign would be permitted “when hell freezes over” was the colorful statement of yet another commissioner.)

The power and imprimatur of Henderson County and now the State of Texas are united to impose the tyranny of the majority upon the rights of the minority, with the denial of freedom of conscience or any appearance of a content-neutral policy regarding displays on government property.

By entering into the religion business, by conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over all others and over non-religion, the Attorney General’s Office has struck a blow at religious liberty.

Very truly,

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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