Secular group wins case to install mock nativity display at Texas capitol


Display by Freedom from Religion Foundation at the Iowa state capitol, 2016 / Freedom from Religion Foundation

Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2021 / 08:01 am (CNA).

After a six-year court battle, a secular group will be permitted to install a “Bill of Rights Nativity Exhibit” at the Texas Capitol following a federal court decision last month.

The secular advocacy group Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit six years ago to install a mock nativity display at the Texas state capitol building. 

The “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” mimics the traditional nativity scene with St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother, and the infant Jesus. Instead of the Holy Family, the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” features the Statue of Liberty in the place of the Blessed Mother, with the founding fathers of the United States surrounding the Bill of Rights in a manger. 

The foundation sued Abbott in 2016 after it was not permitted to keep its display at the state capitol in December 2015. A Christian nativity scene was, however, allowed to be displayed. The Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed that Abbott violated their rights to free speech with the removal of the display. 

In denying the secular exhibit to the foundation, the state of Texas violated the group’s First Amendment rights and engaged in unlawful “viewpoint discrimination,” Judge Lee Yeakel said in his May 5 decision siding with the foundation. Yeakel issued an injunction which barred the State Preservation Board from ever blocking the group from showcasing their display at the capitol.

The foundation says it “works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Abbott had the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” removed three days after it was installed. He criticized the display, saying it was offensive and served no educational purpose. 

Previously, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was victorious in district court, which ruled its free speech rights were violated. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court in April 2020, asking for a permanent injunction protecting the free speech rights of the group. 

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it had obtained the proper permits for the display and was sponsored by a Texas legislator. The organization also had a sign celebrating the winter solstice, noting it was close to the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. 

The group’s mock display at the Iowa capitol in 2016 also featured figures of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty, all “gazing in adoration at a ‘baby’ Bill of Rights.” The group said their “tongue-in-cheek” display was a response to a Christian nativity scene at the state capitol.

“At this Season of the Winter Solstice, join us in honoring the Bill of Rights, adopted on December 15, 1791, which reminds us there can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent,” a sign beside the Iowa display stated. The sign added, “Keep religion and government separate!”

The foundation was involved in two other cases in May and June related to religious displays and public prayer in Texas. In May, a federal district court judge ruled that a county judge in Texas had to stop opening court sessions with prayer led by a chaplain, after the foundation sued to curb the prayer. In June, the foundation insisted that a Texas public hospital remove a prayer banner from an employee parking garage.

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