A handful of people holding signs with messages such as "The Constitution Is a Secular Document" and "WE THE PEOPLE NOT WE THE CHRISTIANS" protested Sunday morning in front of First Baptist Church Dallas as the church unveiled "Freedom Sunday."
Weeks ago, Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisers, had announced the church would hold the event at the Dallas megachurch with a sermon that would center on "America Is a Christian Nation."
The peaceful protest Sunday morning attended by about 20 members of Metroplex Atheists was just another chapter in the controversy since Jeffress announced the title of the sermon.
Earlier in the month, a media company removed billboards in North Texas that showed the title "Freedom Sunday," "America Is a Christian Nation."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
Just a few days ago, a YouTube promotional video for the event said there would be a "salute to our Armed Forces." The video shows seals from the branches of the military as part of a backdrop.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation had sent the church a letter saying Jeffress was not authorized to use the military insignia, according to news reports.
There were no military insignia at the Sunday services. There were five people dressed in military uniforms.
Protesters were at the church Sunday morning, standing across the street from the main entrance to the church.
"Our main purpose is to educate," said Courtney Stewart, president of Metroplex Atheists. "Many people believe that this is a Christian nation, and that is not surprising. This idea is spread by many religious leaders and media. However, this is absolutely not the case, and we want to set the record straight."
This is the first protest the group has staged against Jeffress. Metroplex Atheists is an advocacy group formed to protect the rights of atheists. The group, founded in 1991, is based in the Fort Worth-Dallas area and has more than 1,400 members.
Stewart said Jeffress has had a record of inflammatory and bigoted statements about other religions.
"The United States is a secular nation founded with a secular constitution," Stewart said. "That means it protects the rights of all Americans, not just those who adhere to his narrow definition of 'Christianity.'"
For more than an hour, the group protested peacefully as Jeffress preached his sermon. "Praise God," someone from a passing car shouted to the group.
At various times, church members handed out bottles of water to the protesters.
Nemat B. Massey of Dallas passed out sheets of paper with Scriptures written on them to protesters.
"I believe they (protesters) have a right to their ideas," Massey said. "I believe in God. And he's (Jeffress) the best pastor in the United States."
Inside the church, "Freedom Sunday" was unveiled with all the songs and fireworks of a political convention. Red, white and blue balloons dotted the church, and American flags were handed out to church members as they walked into the service.
One patriotic song after another filled the church Sunday morning as the service began. The sermon included real fireworks exploding in the church.
At the 9:15 a.m. service, Jeffress noted to the congregation a letter he had received from Vice President Mike Pence, who wrote of his support for "Freedom Sunday."
"Now perhaps you've heard there has been a little bit of controversy," Jeffress said as he began his sermon Sunday morning, drawing a reaction from the crowd. "But I have been so gratified by the outpouring of support from Christians all over the country."
Jeffress continued his sermon, emphasizing that Orthodox Christians founded this nation and the future of the nation will depend on Christian principles.