Abbott Nixes Capitol Freedom From Religion Tableau

Winter Solstice scene on display in the Capitol. It was ordered removed after Gov. Greg Abbott objected to it.
Winter Solstice scene on display in the Capitol. It was ordered removed after Gov. Greg Abbott objected to it.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

To celebrate the season, the Texas Capitol has multiple Christmas trees and a Nativity scene on its grounds. But after a complaint by Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday, "a winter solstice" display urging the separation of church and state has been kicked out.

The display was a cardboard cutout of the nation's founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down at the Bill of Rights in a manger. It had been set up in the Capitol's basement, hardly a high-traffic area, and didn't generate much of a public response. 

But after finding out about it, Abbott called it a "juvenile parody" in a letter asking the State Preservation Board to remove the exhibit. 

Now that it's gone, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the group behind the display, says it's considering its legal options.

 

The Preservation Board approved the exhibit days earlier. But after receiving the letter from Abbott, the agency reconsidered. Executive Director John Sneed snapped a picture of it and texted it to Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Administration Committee. Geren said to take it down. 

"The governor wanted it down, and I told John that, if I were him, I'd take it down," Geren said. "It was an inappropriate exhibit."

The removal comes a week after Abbott publicly expressed his support for a Nativity scene outside the city of Orange municipal building. He argued that the city had a Constitutional right to display the religious imagery. 

In his letter Tuesday, he cited the Constitution again. 

"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 wrote. 

The display is offensive, doesn't serve a public purpose and doesn't educate anyone, he wrote. 

"Far from promoting morals and the general welfare, the exhibit deliberately mocks Christians and Christianity," said Abbott's letter, which also called it a "juvenile parody." 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that describes itself as dedicated to promoting "the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism."

 

Sam Grover, staff attorney for the foundation, said the group is reviewing its legal options and will be in touch with the Preservation Board about getting the display back up. 

"We are certainly disappointed that Gov. Abbott has used his personal opinion to censor our display from the Capitol," he said. 

The display was originally permitted because it was sponsored by state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. Howard said she found out about its removal Tuesday afternoon.

"I was told by someone that the governor had ordered it be removed," she said.

The decision, she said, is disappointing, especially since many state leaders have raised concerns about freedom of religion and freedom of expression. 

"It is unfortunate that these things are used for political purposes of trying to create discord when this should be an example of how we can all live together," she said. 

But Abbott's effort quickly won support elsewhere. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the display violated the Preservation Board's regulation and "purposefully mocks the religious beliefs of others."

"I believe this mocking exhibit was approved in error and the State Preservation board is under no obligation to support or allow displays intentionally disrespectful to others," he said. 

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