This past holiday season, Governor Greg Abbott caught heat for taking down an atheist Christmas display in the Capitol building, and now it looks like the "indecent" four-foot-tall cardboard cutout is the gift that keeps on giving the governor problems. On Friday, the Dallas Morning News reported that Abbott is facing a federal lawsuit filed by the display's creator, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, alleging the Jesus-loving governor violated the advocacy group's freedom of speech and illegally censored the display based on its content.
The display depicted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin encircling a manger with the Bill of Rights in the middle, and next to it there was a poster that read: "Happy Winter Solstice. At this season of the Winter Solstice we honor reason and the Bill of Rights (adopted December 15, 1791). Keep state and church separate. Placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of its Texas members."
The Grinchy governor hated the display. Who's to say why; no one quite knows the reason. It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Late in December, with Christmas practically here, the governor had a wonderful, awful idea.
He penned a three-page letter to the executive director of the State Preservation Board, demanding the founding fathers be booted from the basement rotunda of the capitol building, where the display stood in a largely unpopulated corner. Although the sign was sponsored by Representative Donna Howard, D-Austin, and was even approved by the State Preservation Board, for which Abbott serves as chairman, it was quickly removed.
"The Constitution does not require Texas to allow displays in its Capitol that violate general standards of decency and intentionally disrespect the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans," the governor snarled with a sneer in the letter.
After its display was taken down, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation was not pleased.
"We're disappointed that the Governor is allowing his personal views about our organization to dictate the removal of our display from the capitol," Sam Grover, staff attorney for the organization, told the Houston Press in December. "This is censorship, based on our view, and it's both inappropriate and illegal for the Governor to set up a forum in the state capitol where there's not room at the inn for anyone but Christians."
The group's lawsuit makes the usual legal arguments at the heart of most free speech battles, but it also details a pretty interesting observation about Abbott's demand letter. From the complaint:
Governor Abbott... claimed that 'the exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood,' whereupon the Governor cited 17 lines of a fraudulent quote, falsely attributed to George Washington from a fabricated prayer journal. Scholars and experts who have compared the handwriting of the purported Washington quote have consistently concluded that it is a fake.
That's almost too good to be true, but it appears as though there really is significant doubt over the legitimacy of George Washington's prayer diary, which Abbott was so fond of quoting in his letter.
According to the complaint, this fight has been years in the making. The complaint alleges Abbott had talked tough toward the atheist organization through various media outlets in the past, saying he "will not allow atheist groups from outside of the State of Texas to come into the state," and, ironically, asserting he will "not tolerate or accept these atheist groups trying to prevent freedom of expression here in the State of Texas."
It's not out of character for Abbott to bend the constitution so it only supports his own views. Remember, he recently proposed forming a new constitutional convention to amend the document so that it would basically give states (and their governors) more power than the federal government.
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"The irony for our generation is that the threat to our Republic doesn't come just from foreign enemies; it comes, in part, from our very own leaders," Abbott said during a speech in January before unveiling his pitch for Extreme Makeover: Constitution Edition. The real irony here is that Abbott appears to be exactly the kind of selective constitutionalist he was warning us about.
Maybe the pending litigation will cause Abbott's heart to grow three sizes, and the true meaning of Christmas — or at least the Constitution — will shine through. But probably not.
You can read the Freedom From Religion Foundation's entire complaint here: