COMMENTARY: An atheist group's foray into Texas is like 'a skunk at a lawn party'

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin |

HONDO, Texas (Christian Examiner) – The phrase "God's country" in rural parlance has very little – if anything – to do with religion these days.

It is, rather, an expression of appreciation for the beauty of a particular place and, in most cases, is employed by a person from that particular region.

The open skies of the Wyoming plains may not have much to offer the average person, but find someone who is from there (someone who loves antelope, kangaroo rats and ground hogs) and you'll find someone who believes it is "God's country."

The same is true of a host of wooded areas, mountains, deserts and canyons across the United States. People have been saying their little slice of the pie is "God's country" since 1709, when the phrase was first recorded as a reference to an area blessed with beauty, as the beholder of it understood it.

The same is true of little Hondo, Texas, on Highway 90 between San Antonio and Uvalde. To love the county seat of Medina County, you need to love Mesquite thorns, cactus, white tail deer and the occasional rattle snake or two.

Hondo is as Texas as it comes. Its home to good people and really, really good food (the Hondo Café, Hermann Sons Steak House, and Heavy's Bar B Que to name a few).

I've passed through Hondo on multiple occasions. When I have there's a particular sight that always catches my attention. It's a sign on the way into town that reads in all capitals, "THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY. PLEASE DON'T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL."

Each time I've seen it (it was gone for a period of time for refurbishment), I've chuckled. You can almost hear an old cowboy sitting on the back of his horse saying it. It's the kind of humor that most Texans get, and people who pass through chalk up to the unique outlook on life the people in the small town share.

There's no need to rush. Obey our laws. Enjoy the view. Stop and meet the people.

Just about everyone I can think of would get that message, unless you're a thin-skinned atheist so blinded by your twisted view of the First Amendment that you see even a popular catchphrase as a threat to your velvet conscience or, worse, as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion that threatens the fabric of the republic.

That's how the Freedom from Religion Foundation feels about the little signs in Hondo according to a letter Mayor Jim Danner received from the Wisconsin-based atheist group.

In the letter, Co-complainer Annie Laurie Gaylor, one of the leaders of the atheist organization, tells Mayor Danner that the displays are "divisive" because they "endorse a religious message."

"It is inappropriate for the City of Hondo to display religious signs that convey government preference for religion over non-religion," Gaylor writes. As proof, she cites Lynch v. Donnelly, which has nothing whatsoever to do with a topic similar to the Hondo sign. In fact, that case has to do with a nativity display in Rhode Island and is a case the atheist plaintiff lost at the U.S. Supreme Court, but Gaylor knows that.

She also knows that cases like Aronow v. U.S. have made it clear that public references to God, such as the national motto, "In God We Trust," have been ruled specifically as affirmations of historical belief serving a public purpose and not as an endorsement of religion.

Gaylor also insists that the signs violate Lemon v. Kurtzman, or the "Lemon Test," which proposes that a violation of the separation of church and state occurs when there is an excessive entanglement of religion and the state. For that reason, Gaylor barks that the signs must come done and the city must inform her group of what they intend to do.

Notice to Wisconsin-based atheist group: Texans do not like being told what they MUST do. They say things like, "Come and take it," when you give them orders.

There comes a certain point in the life of most I-can-have-my-belief-but-you-can't-have-yours types where reason is surpassed by zeal for their secularist vision. This is one of those cases.

These signs are not a public display of support for a particular faith, representing an entanglement. They're not even a tacit endorsement of a particular deity. After all, these days, the Attorney General can – oh, let's say – change "Allah" to "God" in an audio transcript and expect that people will take the two as one and the same.

No one is compelled toward belief in God by the sign. No one is coerced to violate their conscience by passing the sign unless, of course, they are bothered by common vocabulary. Failure to bow and prostrate oneself before the sign – which seems to be what the atheist group thinks is required – will not result in confinement or confiscation of property.

These tests – compulsion, coercion, conscience, confinement, and confiscation – along with the context in which the supposed offense occurs should be the determining factors when trying to decide if the word "God" is used in a manner inconsistent with the Constitution.

I say all this to say that the atheists' dog won't hunt.

What remains to be seen now is if the folks in Hondo are ready to put up the money it will take to fight the inevitable lawsuit the foundation will file. And they will file it. They are well funded – in high cotton, as we say – and most small towns aren't. What the atheists cannot win in court, they often win by bleeding people dry.

The Hondo signs are nothing more than a humorous way of conveying a point using the common vernacular. On this one, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has it flat wrong (again) and their "advice" is about as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also a professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University's Rawlings School of Divinity. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (CURA). He wrote his dissertation on Southern Baptists and their influence on military-foreign policy in Vietnam from 1965-1973.