AP NEWS

Court upholds mock Nativity

October 15, 2017

A federal judge has ruled Gov. Greg Abbott violated a group’s freedom of speech by removing a mock Nativity scene from the Texas Capitol two years ago.

The judge ruled against Abbott’s decision two years ago to remove the display, which advocated the separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled late Friday that Abbott “violated (the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s) clearly established First Amendment right to be free from viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum.”

It all started in late 2015 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a “winter solstice” display in the Capitol basement. The exhibit featured a cardboard cutout of the nation’s founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down at the Bill of Rights in a manger.

Abbott ordered its removal, calling it a “juvenile parody” and writing that 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.”

Abbott took the action in his role as the chairman of the State Preservation Board, the body tasked with preserving and maintaining the grounds of the Texas Capitol and several surrounding state landmarks.

The board had previously approved the display. The governor could not immediately be reached to comment on the decision.

“We’d rather keep divisive religious — and irreligious — views out of state capitols,” said FFRF co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“But if the government creates public forums, and permits Christian nativities in them, there must be room at the inn for the rest of us.”

The judge ruled last December that the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Wisconsin-based group behind the exhibit, raised valid questions about free speech rights when it sued Abbott.

Sparks wrote at the time that the lawsuit should proceed because Abbott’s order may have been based on the fact he simply disagreed with the viewpoint the exhibit was expressing. Groups are allowed to display exhibits in certain parts of the Capitol as long as they have a “public purpose,” according to state rules.