Dec

19

FFRF fires back at Texas Attorney General

Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : December 19, 2011

By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff

The question of whether or not a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) banner will be included in the annual Henderson County Christmas display may have been pushed back to next year, but that hasn’t stopped the rhetoric.

Friday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue, promising “my support if the FFRF follows through on its threat to pursue legal action against Henderson County.”

Abbott’s declaration came in a letter to Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders.

The FFRF answered back Monday in a letter to Abbott signed by foundation co-presidents and husband and wife, Dan Taylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“The imprimatur of the county of Henderson, and now the imprimatur of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are being used to endorse Christianity,” the letter reads.

By now, the story is well known and has literally been reported from coast to coast. Early in December the FFRF demanded that Henderson County remove a nativity scene from Courthouse Christmas display, then changed tactics and tried to get an atheist banner included. Last week, the foundation conceded it was too late to get the banner displayed this year, but said it would likely be back in 2012.

Attorneys from both sides of the issue claim the law is on their side, often citing Supreme Court cases and quoting passages from the legal decisions.

The FFRF believes Henderson County has opened a public forum by allowing Light Up Athens to decorate the Courthouse lawn, saying if that is so then the county “cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination or censorship.”

County officials aren’t ready to agree that the lawn is a public forum just yet, saying that they have a contract with just one entity to do the decorating.

The conflict between the FFRF and Abbott goes deeper than one nativity scene.

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a long history of attacking entirely constitutional public acknowledgements of our nation’s religious heritage,” Abbott wrote in his letter to Sanders.

Abbott listed three times his office had been involved against the FFRF: when the foundation challenged President Obama’s inaugural prayer in 2009; when the foundation challenged the National Day of Prayer; and when the foundation challenged Gov. Perry attending a prayer rally. Abbott said the FFRF lost in all three challenges.

In Monday’s letter to Abbott, Taylor and Gaylor wrote, “The power and imprimatur of Henderson County and now the State of Texas are united to impose the tyranny of the majority upon the rights of the minority, with the denial of freedom of conscience or any appearance of a content-neutral policy regarding displays on government property.”

“By entering into the religion business, by conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over all others and over non-religion, the Attorney General’s Office has struck a blow at religious liberty,” the letter concludes.

Comments (22)

  1. Peter S. Chamberlain said on 31-12-2011

    Mils is onto something. Let’s put up prominent atheist figures and atheism-based governments and their leaders, identified as such, with a sign saying we’re doing this in order to please the so-called “Freedom From Religion Foundation” (FFRF). Can you or FFRF think of any atheism-based nations, or anyplace that purported to guarantee “freedom from religion,” where anyone would choose to live? Mao’s China? Kim Jong Il’s North Korea? Pol Pot’s Cambodia? Idi Amin’s Uganda? Marx, Stalin, etc.’s Soviet Union, East Germany, etc.? Hitler’s Germany? Caligula’s Rome?

    While we’re at it, just to keep this positive, let’s have a pair of displays showing which hospitals, children’s homes and shelters, educational institutions, etc. were founded and originally funded by religious people and church groups, in the name of their religion, in the U. S., and the other showing those founded and originally funded by the atheists.

    Sure, let the FFRF put up their foolish, snide banner–right over that display of the atheists’ historical contribution to health, education, child welfare, etc. in the U. S. However, since their position cannot be proven “scientifically” or otherwise within the standards set by the Supreme Court, and is thus essentially and ultimately every bit as much a matter of a “leap of faith” as Christianity, they only get to do this if they agree and stipulate that the county or other governmental unit may allow Christians or those of other genuine religions that actually exist to make similar use of governmentally-owned property including the streets and the public square.

    My recollection of living briefly in Athens, Texas, and the courthouse and courthouse square there where, as a lawyer, I have spent time, is a little rusty, but, like many other towns, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where my family lived from junior high through high school and some vacations from college, in order to make the town and its lots for sale attractive, the governmental authorities who laid out the town reserved at least four large prime lots for, and donated them to, the four largest churches, which occupy them to this day. I’ve shoveled the snow from one after a big storm, which causes me to remember very well that they were large and had long, wide sidewalks on two sides.

    Various places I have lived or visited had municipal public “commons,” where everything from the grazing of livestock to revivals and other religious activities, to wartime scrap and bond drives, to community band and chorus performances, to political campaigns, were conducted. Some laid out more recently had city parks, on and off the courthouse square, where they did not have grazing in my day but did have religious as well as civic activities. Every courthouse square I have known that had open land was a public forum. We used the large old courtrooms and jury assembly rooms, etc., for such purposes, too. So were most public school buildings and campuses until quite recently. I know of a nationally organized program to promote and facilitate use of public school buildings and facilities for other purposes, including Scout and Camp Fire troops and church start-ups, under nominal leases. The original idea of a “mall,” as in Washington, D. C., included such activities. Of course there tended to be more vacant lots and spaces that were used for everything from pickup ball games to circus performances to revivals.

    The Constitution bars religious tests for office but contains not one but two special guarantees for religious liberty and against government establishment of religion, plus two more explicit guarantees, speech and press, that include protection of religious expression, whether someone wants to listen or not. Neither guarantees any such thing as “freedom from religion,” any guarantee of which would require nullification of the explicit guarantees of freedom of speech, press, and religion in the First Amendment. Indeed, I challenge these characters to write a definition of “freedom from religion” which would not reveal on its face that they are seeking to deny both freedom of speech, press, and religion, guaranteed in the First, and equal protection of the law, guaranteed in the Fifth and Fourteenth, Amendments to religious believers generally and Christians in particular, in order to inhibit, deter, eliminate, disfavor, or marginalize expression, and explicitly protected expression, with which they happen to choose to disagree, because of the content of the messages sought to be suppressed.

    The fact that the federal government owns, has the responsibility to keep open, and the power to regulate conduct on, the steps of the U. S. Capital, and that the states and their counties and other subdivisions have similar duties and powers with respect to similar property, such as courthouses, parks, lawns, and commons under their jurisdiction, definitely does not permit, much less require, them to discriminate against or exclude First Amendment protected activity, including religious activity, there. Remember when an overwhelming majority of both parties in Congress made this point by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; including the words “under God,” on the Capitol steps after this became an issue. Congress has always had chaplains and opened its sessions with prayer, and the Supreme Court has, among other things, the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments on its chamber wall and opens every session with a prayer to “God.”

    The law never has, and, under the Constitution and First Amendment, never could, guarantee broad protection in the public square against either private or governmental speech on the ground that it may tend to upset someone because of its content. The Supreme Court has made that clear over and over again. Indeed, while the religious expression complained of by FFRF here is on public land, it is created and funded by private parties. I have been highly offended by a lot of “government speech,” which the Supreme Court, rightly or wrongly, has long held is not subject to First Amendment or other judicial regulation.

    Incidentally, none of this activity that FFRF is trying to inhibit, and the protected expression it is trying to suppress, by threats of expensive, if groundless, litigation, violates “separation of church and state,” a concept first developed by church people long before the U. S. much less the First Amendment, where it does not appear, not because they are not, or should not be, separate and distinct, but because, even before the Bill of Rights, which the Framers originally thought both unnecessary and dangerously subject to misinterpretation, the Constitution gave the federal government, the subject thereof, no function or power to interfere with religion, as the FFRF would have it do. It is quite clear from Jefferson’s “letter to the Danbury Baptists” to which the phrase is typically traced, though the concept is much older and he did not claim to have invented it, and his other writings, that he believed in protecting the churches and their members from the government, rather than believing that the government needed any protection from the churches or the people generally. For an excellent exposition of the true history, meaning, and purpose of “separation of church and state,” see the really outstanding amicus curiae brief filed by the Washington lawyers for David Barton’s WallBuilders group, dedicated to highlighting the very real Judeo-Christian roots of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and its Bill of Rights and the foundation of this nation (who are generally but not always right on other points), in the recently argued and pending Hosanna-Tabor case recently argued and pending decision in the Supreme Court, which, among other things, answers some critics of the concept and phrase. I would love to see FFRF try to rebut this brief.

    FFRF should also be pinned down tight on their theory of the ultimate origin of the fundamental, unalienable rights they claim to be seeking to enforce and which, if they exist, would be guaranteed, not granted, by the Bill of Rights. Since these are rights against both the federal and state or local governments, the federal or state government cannot be their source. Any close study of the Federalist papers and other contemporaneous writings by the Framers and Founders, long recognized as particularly relevant, reveals that there was widespread agreement that, as explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence, these were granted by “our Creator” and “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

    • Diana S. Hunter said on 03-01-2012

      Hi Mr. Chamberlain,

      There are always at least two sides to every issue. And, usually those involved attempt to convince others that the viewpoint they espouse is the correct one. Part of debating is using information that supports one’s position. Usually though, if a concerned person takes the time to do research, it turns up that there is valid material that does not fit into the scenario posed by those debating.

      Personally, I think that the approach that the FFRC takes does more harm than good. To turn to an adage, I think they “shot themselves in the foot in Henderson County.”

      However, I still think Citizens ought to consider the bigger picture. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides information on what has become known as the “Christmas Wars.” An excerpt follows:

      “The ‘Christmas wars,’ as these debates are known, have become a front in a much wider culture war. On one side, social conservatives argue that local governments have every right to recognize and acknowledge the religious nature of what are, after all, religious holidays. Civil libertarians and others counter that government should not be in the business of promoting religion, and that doing so is discriminatory and in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on religious establishment.

      What is and is not allowed when it comes to religious displays is still, to a large degree, open to debate. Some legal experts blame this uncertainty on the Supreme Court. The high court, they argue, has crafted a standard for judging the constitutionality of displays that is too subjective and thus leads to inconsistencies when applied by the lower courts.

      Judicial efforts to determine whether various holiday displays violate the Constitution are part of a larger series of cases involving public religious displays. Since the early 1980s, courts have considered the constitutionality of a variety of religious displays, from Ten Commandments monuments on public property to religious symbols on government seals. While the holiday cases involve a unique set of contextual issues, all display cases ultimately involve the same basic constitutional questions.”

      [End of Quote]

      The entire article can be read at:

      http://pewforum.org/Church-State-Law/The-Christmas-Wars-Holiday-Displays-and-the-Federal-Courts.aspx

      There is another old adage that I think may apply: “Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.” Inserting Christianity into government may be a two-edged sword. While it is the predominate religion now, it may not be in the future. A Constitution neutral on religion has the benefit of providing protection to all. When one religion is given preference over others, then I can see how that Government could be toppled by Citizens with other religious beliefs (or no religious beliefs)–because they feel that they are not treated as equals.

      So far, the US courts have been taking religious displays (on Government property) issues on a case-by-case basis. Determinations are made on the specifics. To me, this seems far more reasonable than making a blanket statement–one way or the other.

      Also, it is helpful to realize that the FFRC is not an atheist group. Their membership includes Christians and those of other religions as well as atheists. The organization is one dedicated to the issue of “untangling church and state.”

      The protection of Civil Liberties is a very important concept. Although people of religion may fear that their right to practice their religion is being challenged, there is also the issue of fair and equal treatment under the law. One way to help ensure fair and equal treatment is to work to keep the Government neutral on the issue of religion. This could be as simple as moving a nativity scene to private property.

  2. tony l thompson said on 22-12-2011

    I hope they never come to my town…..their banner goes up, it will be destroyed……daily. They say Christian ways are being forced on the public, what about the ffrf, isn’t that what their doing??? Why is ok for one but not the other???? Ffrf can eat shit as far as I’m concerned, they serve no purpose and cause nothing but anger. There will be a time and in the near future that people will start standing up to them……I for one will be happy to when they come to South Dakota…….

  3. Joe Mils said on 20-12-2011

    You know what, the FFFFRFFFFFRFF guys are right! Instead of a well recognized cultural icon who generally supported people being nice to one another, let’s put up an prominent atheist historical figure. I suggest Joseph Stalin or Kim Jong Il.

    • Bill Dugan said on 21-12-2011

      Neither Stalin nor KJI are prominent atheist figures. Maybe they were bright enough to acknowledge that the glass of religion does not hold water, but that’s not what they were known for. Stalin condemned millions of his own to death and KJI was an oppressor. Neither would have enjoyed the power they had if it weren’t for dogma (blind faith).

      If we’re using your logic why don’t we put up a Catholic priest with a winking eye holding the hand of an altar boy?

    • Bill Dugan said on 21-12-2011

      “a well recognized cultural icon who generally supported people being nice to one another”

      So long as the others also submit, without question, to the intervening, all-knowing, invisible cultural icon. Otherwise they get the sword (read Deuteronomy or Exodus).

      Joe, to characterize God/Jesus/HS as supporting people being nice to one another shows a very superficial understanding of your holy book.

      • Kat said on 22-12-2011

        This just shows your ignorance, Deuteronomy or Exodus are in the OLD testament and when Jesus died for our sins he took all these type of laws with his death and left one rule to love your neighbor as you love yourself. If more people lived this rule the world really would be a better place to live.

        • Bill Dugan said on 22-12-2011

          Kat, please cite the NT scripture where it states that the teachings of Jesus and the books of the NT (all of which were written after it’s claimed that Jesus lived) supersede those of the OT?

          Because there’s this scripture to muddy the waters…

          “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
          Matthew 5:17 (New Testament)

          :-/

  4. Larry Linn said on 20-12-2011

    Social commentator and former alter-boy George Carlin sums it up, “Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bull*** story. Holy S***!”

  5. L Turner said on 20-12-2011

    Who cares? I am glad the attorney general stood up to these jerks. Set up a commune in Wisconsin and drink some kool aid you d-bags!

  6. Bill Dugan said on 20-12-2011

    Impressed with the FFRF’s response letter. It’s a travesty that Attorney General Greg Abbott holds the office he does. He’s aggressively biased towards Christianity.

  7. Diana S. Hunter said on 20-12-2011

    Will someone please share information as to how long the Nativity scene has been part of the Court House decorations? Does anyone know the year when the Nativity scene was first placed there?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Michael V. Hannigan said on 20-12-2011

      Diana — That has been difficult to find out. The current set up has been in place at least seven years, but I am told by longtime area residents that they remember a nativity on the square going back to when they were a child.

    • Sharon Brown said on 21-12-2011

      In the 70′s as a child, I can remember the old plastic nativity scene that had the lights inside them to display on through the night. There have been a few nativity scenes retire through the years. I can remember in the another that had a barn like setting with it. This has been a long time tradition with no problems until now. Just proves that this old world is getting worse and worse as time goes by.

  8. [...] FFRF fires back at Texas Attorney General | The Malakoff News FFRF fires back at Texas Attorney General | The Malakoff News http://t.co/RsDDqI0i [...]

  9. Ms Cox said on 20-12-2011

    A friend of mine pointed out that Ms. Gaylor is wrong in her accusations. On the exact opposite corner of the square are deer in their natural world, which is what the FFRF exposes to believe in.

    So wrap up your threats Ms. Gaylor and stay in Wisconsin were the cheese is more binding.

  10. [...] MalakoffNews: The FFRF answered back Monday in a letter to Abbott signed by foundation co-presidents and husband and wife, Dan Taylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor. [...]

  11. Randy Rader said on 20-12-2011

    The logic of the last paragraph seems incredibly illogical to me. Cannot follow the ffrf reasoning on that one. I believe the rally Dec. 17, actually portrayed our religious liberty in a very visible way.

    • Diana S. Hunter said on 20-12-2011

      Hi Randy,

      This is the paragraph to which you referred, right?

      “By entering into the religion business, by conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over all others and over non-religion, the Attorney General’s Office has struck a blow at religious liberty.”

      The way the FFRC has dealt with this issue has been aggressive from the start. Reading comments for days now, I understand that many local people feel that the Nativity scene on the grounds of the Henderson County Courthouse is THEIR nativity scene. I also understand that many people see the actions of the FFRF as an attack on Christianity. I also thing that it is unfortunate that the organization chose to take it on in the manner they did.

      I am not a member of the FFRF and I cannot speak for them (nor do I want to do so). But, I do think that it is important for Citizens of Henderson County to understand the premises behind what the FFRC hopes to achieve. I also think that most of us believe that the Constitution of the United States of America is a very important document fundamental to how our Government was set up and should operate.

      Technically speaking, the FFRF is not an atheist organization. While it is true that some of their members are atheists, others are religious. If you visit their website, you can find a statement of purpose there. It reads:

      “The purposes of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., as stated in its bylaws, are to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”

      The only definition I could find for “nontheism” was on the Wikipedia website. The definition given there is as follows: “Any of a range of concepts regarding spirituality and religion which do not include the idea of a deity in the form of a theistic god or gods.”

      The US Constitution is a document written without the mention of “God.” For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as a “God-less” document.
      The FFRC focuses on the First Amendment to the US Constitution which reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

      The part of the first amendment that states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is sometimes referred to as the “establishment clause.” The establishment clause is separate from the next part: “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]“ The Establishment clause applies to government entities while the free exercise clause pertains to individual Citizens.

      Reading posts to the Facebook page of the FFRF, time and time again members state that do not wish to interfere in a person’s right to practice the religion of their choice. What they state they want is for there to be no religious symbols on government property—be the government at the national, state, or local level. They say time and time again that they believe that individuals should be free to place religious symbols on private property.

      As I understand it, the position of the FFRC is that first the Henderson County government and then the State of Texas have taken actions that indicate that one religion (in this case Christianity) is being promoted by those governmental units,giving the appearance that it is the favored religion of these governmental units. In other words, establishing it as the religion of those governmental units. This then is in violation of the Establishment clause.

      Another way to look at this is to consider the scenario where the County and State governments had taken actions that indicated that they strongly supported some religion other than yours. In this situation, would you not wonder if you would be treated fairly and equally because you were a member of a religion that was not the favored one?

      I think this is an important issue for the people of Henderson County. Most of us have children, grand children, and some even great-grand children. The United States is becoming more and more diverse. Over time, it is possible that Christianity will no longer be the religion of the majority of the citizens. From my perspective, what we don’t want to do now is to set matters up so that our children, grandchildren, and even great grand children could be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. One way to help ensure that this does not happen is by keeping true to the First Amendment of the US Constitution– keeping all levels of government separate from any church or religion. While this could mean something such as moving the Courthouse Nativity scene onto private property, the willingness to do this now would help ensure that individuals are free to practice the religion of their choice in the future.

      Best wishes, Diana

  12. Donna Rinn said on 19-12-2011

    I have a couple of thoughts on this issue.
    First, I would like to see the Attorney General send a letter to all Texas Counties offering support in dealing with the FFRF in past cases or in the future so that no other counties remove their Nativity Scenes if they choose to have one on their Courthouse Lawns. Any that have removed theirs in the past may then choose to place them back where they should be in 2012.

    Secondly, why pack up these Nativity Scenes by New Years Day? Why not leave them on the Courthouse Grounds as long as this issue is still in discussion between the FFRF and the Attorney General’s Office as a sign of support for keeping our stand on this issue firm in the eyes of all involved?

    • MARY PIPER said on 20-12-2011

      Its a sad thing since one of the ffrf leaders uesed to be evangelist, so he knows its wrong what they are doing.,pray Athens does there home work they will have a year

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