AUSTIN, Texas (Christian Examiner) – The Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation is suing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott because of his removal of the group's winter solstice display from the grounds of the state capitol in Austin a week before Christmas last year.
FFRF filed the lawsuit in federal court Feb. 25, alleging the governor violated the group's free speech, due process and equal protection rights, and violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by removing the display, which featured the founders George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, along with the Statue of Liberty, worshipping a copy of the Bill of Rights in a manger.
According to the lawsuit, Abbott is accused of not remaining "viewpoint neutral or reasonable" and being motivated "by animus toward the content" of the display. Abbott said, according to FFRF, that the display was removed because it was intended to be a mockery of Christianity.
Abbott said in a letter to the State Preservation Board, which oversees the capitol holiday displays, that the display was a "juvenile parody" and a violation of the board's rules.
"Subjecting an image held sacred to millions of Texans to the Foundation's tasteless sarcasm does nothing to promote morals and the general welfare. To the contrary, the Foundation's spiteful message is intentionally designed to belittle and offend, which undermines rather than promotes any public purpose a display promoting the Bill of Rights might otherwise have had," Abbott said in the letter.
Abbott also said that the display did not have the purpose of education and the general public does not share in the "direct interest" of the FFRF. He compared the atheist group's display to the National Endowment for the Art's award of $15,000 for an artist who photographed a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. After the NEA did so, Congress enacted laws prohibiting the funding of artwork that violated "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of American public life."
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Ironically, the State Preservation Board had approved the placement of the display in August. In the application, FFRF said its purpose was to educate about the Dec. 15 "nativity of the Bill of Rights." It also described the display and said its added effect was to "celebrate the views of Texans who are part of a religious minority or have no religion at all."
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Part of the lawsuit filed by FFRF details what the group calls Abbott's "animus" toward its goals and members.
"In December of 2011, for example, Governor Abbott actually warned FFRF to stay out of Texas altogether, stating: 'Our message to the atheists is don't mess with Texas and our Nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments,'" the lawsuit said.
It also claimed that in October 2012, Abbott again claimed he would defend Texans from "atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas" who want to come to the state and "use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs."
FFRF is seeking a summary judgment of the federal court that Abbott, along with John Sneed, executive director of the Texas State Preservation Board, violated the Establishment Clause and the rights of the FFRF. The group is asking the court to award it damages and legal fees, as well.