Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF seeks to sustain victory against Texas Gov. Abbott

Vol. 36 No. 03 April 2019
FFRF’s Bill of Rights “nativity.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

A historic triumph for free speech — especially for nonbelievers — in the Lone Star State is being defended in appeals court.

FFRF filed its brief Feb. 13 in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to sustain its win last year in federal court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s removal of its winter solstice Bill of Rights “nativity” from the state Capitol in 2015.

FFRF had placed a permitted display celebrating the winter solstice and Bill of Rights Day in December 2015 in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The whimsical display, depicting Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator. Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

In a final judgement issued last June, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas — Austin Division, declared that Abbott had violated FFRF’s free speech rights. (FFRF had received an initial ruling in its favor in October 2017.)

On appeal to the 5th Circuit, Abbott did not contest the district court’s ruling that he violated FFRF’s free speech rights, explains FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, so there are only a few remaining contested issues.

The first is whether the court should also issue an injunction against the censorship of FFRF’s display in the future. A second issue on appeal, raised by FFRF, is whether the 5th Circuit should reverse the lower court’s rejection of FFRF’s challenge to the State Preservation Board’s standards of review for display applications. FFRF argues that the requirement that displays have a “public purpose” grants government officials unbridled discretion to reject applications for impermissible purposes, such as Abbott’s hostility toward FFRF’s message. The district court ruled that Abbott’s order was illegal, but FFRF is asking the 5th Circuit to ensure that the State Preservation Board cannot abuse the public purpose requirement in the future — by doing away with the requirement in its entirety.