A new front has opened in the Texas battle over nativity scenes. Last week, we told you about the Freedom From Religion Foundation's plan to erect a "Bill of Rights" nativity scene at the state Capitol. Texas state Representative Donna Howard sponsored the display, which depicts a few of the founding fathers gathered around a copy of the Bill of Rights placed in a manger, and it went up Friday. Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott had it taken down.
"It has come to my attention that State Preservation Board staff approved an application by the 'Freedom From Religion Foundation' to display an exhibit on the ground floor of the Capitol," Abbott said in a letter to the state preservation board's executive director, John Sneed. "The exhibit is entitled [sic] 'Bill of Rights [N]ativity and Winter Solstice [D]isplay.' The exhibit places the bill of rights in a manger and shows three founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty worshipping [sic] one of America’s founding documents as a replacement for Jesus Christ. This juvenile parody violates the Preservation Board’s regulations and should be removed immediately."
After receiving the letter, Sneed had the display taken down without notifying the FFRF.
"Ironically, the very document that our display was honoring is what protects this form of expression," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in statement. "Government officials cannot censor our speech because they disagree with our secular message."
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick echoed Abbott's claim that the display mocked Christians.
"I support the immediate removal of the 'mock nativity' display located inside the Capitol building. The display purposely disrespects others by mocking their sincerely held religious beliefs."
In his letter to Sneed, quoted verbatim below, Abbott takes specific issue with the idea of the founders in the display worshiping the Bill of Rights because, the governor says, the founders were all God-fearing men.
To the contrary, the exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood insofar as it suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson worshipped (or would worship) the bill of rights in the place of Jesus. To take just one example, consider this passage from George Washington’s prayer journal:
Direct my thoughts, words and work, wash away my sins in the immaculate blood of the lamb, and purge my heart by thy holy spirit, from the dross of my natural corruption, that I may with more freedom of mind and liberty of will serve thee, the ever lasting God, in righteousness and holiness this day, and all the days of my life. Increase my faith in the sweet promises of the gospel; give me repentance from dead works; pardon my wanderings, & direct my thoughts unto thyself, the God of my salvation; teach me how to live in thy fear, labor in thy service, and ever to run in the ways of thy commandments; make me always watchful over my heart, that neither the terrors of conscience, the loathing of holy duties, the love of sin, nor an unwillingness to depart this life, may cast me into a spiritual slumber, but daily frame me more into the likeness of thy son Jesus Christ, that living in thy fear, and dying in thy favor, I may in thy appointed time attain the resurrection of the just unto eternal life bless my family, friends & kindred unite us all in praising & glorifying thee in all our works begun, continued, and ended, when we shall come to make our last account before thee blessed saviour, who hath taught us thus to pray, our Father.
The thing is, as pointed out first by Andrew Seidel at Patheos, the Washington quote probably isn't real. Here's what Frank Grizzard, an editor of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, wrote about the book Abbott took his quote from:
"Tens of thousands of genuine Washington manuscripts have survived to the present, including many from the youthful Washington, and even a cursory comparison of the prayer book with a genuine Washington manuscript reveals that they are not the same handwriting."
The FFRF says it intends to take legal action.
"We are disappointed that Governor Abbott has let his personal opinion of FFRF and free thought be a catalyst for the censorship of our display in the Texas Capitol," FFRF staff attorney Sam Grover said in statement. "Removing our Bill of Rights 'nativity' while allowing a Christian nativity to be displayed in the Capitol is discriminatory and illegal. Abbott is sending the message that nonbelievers are second-class citizens in Texas. He should be ashamed."