AUSTIN, Texas — Attorney General Greg Abbott has announced his support for a nativity scene displayed at a Texas courthouse, after a Washington, D.C.-based “nontheistic” organization threatened to sue unless it was removed.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) sent a letter to the Cherokee County Courthouse on November 24, in which they requested that the nativity scene be taken down and promise that no similar displays would be erected in the future, or to allow them to erect their own”HumanLight” or “Happy Humanist” display next to it “to celebrate and express the positive, secular, human values of reason, compassion, humanity and hope,” according to a report by the Houston Chronicle. AHA attorney Monica Miller told the Chronicle that the organization was prepared to sue Cherokee County if its demands were not met.
Abbott responded with a letter to Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis offering the legal support of his office. In the letter, Abbott disagreed with the AHA’s interpretation of the Constitution’s Establishment clause, writing that it did allow “passive displays acknowledging our Nation’s religious heritage, such as the Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol or a nativity scene incorporated into a holiday display on public grounds in December.” Abbott noted that the Attorney General’s office could not represent Cherokee County in court, but if they were sued, he would be able to file legal briefs in court that supported their position.
Abbott also shared a link to his letter in a post on Twitter, vowing that he “won’t allow a liberal D.C. group to stop Christmas in Texas.”
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) December 4, 2014
This is not the first time that the Attorney General’s office under Abbott has supported religious liberty. He previously supported another nativity scene at the Henderson County Courthouse in 2011, as the San Antonio Express-Newsreported, and represented the State of Texas in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, Van Orden v. Perry, in which he successfully defended the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin.
Full text of Abbott’s letter to Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis:
December 4, 2014
The Honorable Chris Davis
County Judge Cherokee County
35 S. Main, 3rd Floor
Rusk, Texas 75785
Dear Judge Davis,
I have learned that a Washington D.C.-based organization called the American Humanist Association (AHA) recently sent you a letter demanding the removal of a nativity scene from the grounds of the Cherokee County Courthouse. The letter threatens to sue Cherokee County unless you “promptly remove” the nativity scene and “provide … written assurances that no similar display will be erected in the future.” You have informed my office that the County intends to keep the nativity scene in place through the Christmas season, and that the display on the courthouse grounds contains a variety of features, a number of which have no religious element. I write to offer my support if the AHA follows through on its threat to sue Cherokee County.
While the Texas Attorney General’s Office cannot represent Cherokee County in court, should the need arise, my office can and will file legal briefs supporting the County’s authority to retain the nativity scene display on the courthouse grounds. My office has previously taken action in support of numerous Texas communities and school children who have been forced to defend their rights against similar legal attacks.
In 2011, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened similar litigation over the Christmas display on the grounds of the Henderson County courthouse in Athens, Texas. I notified Henderson County that my office would support its defense of the inclusion of a nativity scene within the display if the litigation threat was carried out, and I write today to make the same commitment to the people of Cherokee County.
The AHA has a long history of attacking entirely constitutional public acknowledgements of our Nation’s religious heritage, and my office is prepared to offer support to Cherokee County if the AHA follows through on its threatened lawsuit.
The Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution permits passive displays acknowledging our Nation’s religious heritage, such as the Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol or a nativity scene incorporated into a holiday display on public grounds in December. The Supreme Court has observed that “[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). Public acknowledgments of our Nation’s religious heritage – from the highest seat of the federal government to the public square in communities such as Rusk, Texas – routinely serve the constitutional and appropriate purpose of “solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.” Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 693 (1984) (O’Connor, J., concurring). And on the contrary, lawsuits (like the one threatened by AHA) seeking to require the government “to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious” are “not only inconsistent with our national traditions, but … also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid.” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 699 (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment).
Cherokee County is under no legal obligation to remove the nativity scene from the courthouse grounds. Should Cherokee County choose to continue its tradition of including a nativity scene within the County’s display this Christmas season, the Texas Attorney General’s Office stands ready to provide appropriate legal support.
If you have any questions, or if we may be of additional assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your service to the people of Cherokee County and the State of Texas.
Attorney General of Texas
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.