Judge: Texas Gov. Abbott violated FFRF’s rights

FFRF has triumphed in federal court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had ordered the removal of its winter solstice Bill of Rights nativity from the state Capitol in 2015.

In a final judgement, issued June 19, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas — Austin Division, declared that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF, with more than 32,000 nonreligious members, including over 1,300 Texas members, had placed a duly 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.

“Defendants violated FFRF’s First Amendment rights and engaged in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when the FFRF exhibit was removed from the Texas Capitol building under the circumstances of this case,” Sparks ruled.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor praised the ruling as a very strong decision for FFRF, for free speech and for the rights of nonbelieving citizens. “The Constitution, with its precious Bill of Rights, and reason have prevailed over governmental censorship and discrimination against nonbelievers.”

FFRF received an initial ruling in its favor that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated its free speech rights in October 2017. But there were two roadblocks to achieving the final judgment. First, Abbott appealed the district court’s ruling that he also could be sued as an individual (as well as being named defendant in his official capacity as governor). The district court wished to hold a trial to decide FFRF’s personal capacity claims against Abbott and its Establishment Clause claims. Since neither of these side issues were necessary to securing FFRF’s right to place its display in the Texas Capitol in the future, it decided to dismiss the claims, clearing the path for the victorious final judgment.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Governor Greg Abbott, Case No. A-16-CA-00233-SS.

FFRF was represented by attorney Richard L. Bolton with FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover as co-counsel.

“We’re pleased to finally have this lawsuit wrapped up,” says Grover. “Now we wait to see whether Gov. Abbott and the Texas attorney general’s office will follow the law and allow us to place our display again, or whether they appeal this decision and waste more state resources to fight against one of our nation’s most foundational free speech principles.”

Gov. Abbott and the executive director of the Texas State Preservation Board are expected to appeal the decision.

FFRF’s “nativity” display.