Is an interpretation of a public display enough to deem it against the rules?
Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter on Tuesday urging John Sneed, executive director of the State Preservation Board, to remove the Freedom From Religion Foundation exhibit from the State Capitol’s basement gallery because it “violates general standards of decency and intentionally disrespects the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans.”
Abbott is the chairman of the board, but he learned about the display only after it was approved by the office of the State Preservation Board and displayed.
The exhibit, entitled “Bill of Rights Nativity and Winter Solstice Display” featured images of Benjamin Franklin, the Statue of Liberty, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington surrounding the Bill of Rights placed in a manger. The organization said it wanted to celebrate the 224th ratification of the Bill of Rights along with the winter solstice and to educate people on the separation of church and state.
The sign that accompanied the “nativity” stated “we honor reason and the Bill of Rights (Adopted December 15, 1791). Keep state and church separate.”
Abbott wrote that the “juvenile parody” violated the regulations of the State Preservation Board by not having a public purpose, not being educational. and promoting ignorance and falsehood. He also said the exhibit “deliberately mocks Christians and Christianity.”
But the display did educate (its sign contained information about adoption of the Bill of Rights), had a public purpose (to remind people of separation of church and state) and didn’t promote falsehoods (nowhere did it say the Founding Fathers worshiped the Bill of Rights).
All of Abbott’s allegations stemmed from his interpretation of the display.
The nativity scene could be seen as a mockery of Christianity or as a representation of the importance of the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect religious freedom, even religion not aligned with their own personal faith. The display could be interpreted as a representation of that idea.
Bill of Rights protections often make people uncomfortable. This display should have come under First Amendment protection. Abbott’s urging its removal was simply wrong.