AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the State Preservation Board to immediately remove a Bill of Rights-themed nativity display in the State Capitol. It was removed Tuesday afternoon.
In a letter to the board’s executive director Monday, the governor called the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s display “juvenile” and “tasteless sarcasm.”
Abbott says the display does not serve a public purpose, adding that activities that promote a specific viewpoint are prohibited in the public areas of the Capitol. “Far from promoting morals and the general welfare, the exhibit deliberately mocks Christians and Christianity,” the governor says.
“The exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood insofar as it suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson worshiped (or would worship) the bill of rights in the place of Jesus,” Gov. Abbott added in his letter. The letter then includes an excerpt of George Washington’s prayer journal.
The controversial display has three of the Founding Fathers next to the Statue of Liberty standing over the Bill of Rights.
“We indicated the educational purpose of our display in our initial application with the State Preservation Board,” Explained Sam Grover, a staff attorney with Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We think that the display is educational in the sense that it teaches people about the Winter Solstice, it teaches people that there are other religions and non-religions out there in addition to Christianity. It also teaches about the Bill of Rights and that it was enacted on Dec. 15, 1791.”
The sign next to the display, is titled “Happy Winter Solstice,” followed by the text: “All this Season of the Winter Solstice, we honor reason and the Bill of Rights (Adopted December 15, 1791).”
“Keep State & Church Separate,” is also posted on the sign. The sign is sponsored by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, but not endorsed by the state.
“[I’m] Disappointed. This group like any other group that has come to me for sponsorship, has a right to utilize public space as long as they follow the process,” said Howard over the phone. “Unfortunately the governor, who has the right to his personal opinion, like many others at the Capitol, are focused on religious freedom instead silencing someone who has a different opinion and I don’t think that’s what the First Amendment is about.” Howard also believes the First Amendment is supposed to protect everyone.
“The Governor’s opinion is not surprising to us but it’s pretty upsetting, we figured the governor would be open to having all viewpoints expressed at the Capitol, that is what the Capitol’s forum for display suggests.” continued Grover. “It appears that there’s no room at the end for anything but the Christian view point.”
Grover said the group received many complaints when a Christian nativity scene went up in the Capitol last year. The nonprofit, based out of Madison, Wis., said it wanted to make sure a “free thought viewpoint was also expressed in the Capitol.”
“The Governor’s interpretation of our display is his own personal opinion and the fact that he doesn’t agree with our view points and is offended by it is no reason to sensor our display from the capitol,” said Grover. “In fact, it’s an illegal reason to sensor the display.”
When asked if the group would take legal action, Grover said they’re reviewing their options and and will be pursing the governor’s actions further.
KXAN was at the Capitol when they took the display down between 1:00 and 1:10 p.m. Monday. We were told the display was taken to a maintenance room.