Atheists threaten lawsuit over small town's 'Jesus welcomes you' sign

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins" sign in Hawkins, Texas. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is demanding the town remove the sign because, sitting on public property, they said it endorses a particular religion. | KLTV Tyler/Screenshot

HAWKINS, Texas (Christian Examiner) – The small town of Hawkins, Texas, has been warned by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation that a sign on city property welcoming people to the town is unconstitutional because it says "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins."

FFRF, an atheist group which seeks to expunge all references to faith from American civic life, sent city officials a letter June 1 demanding the removal of the sign because it is "inappropriate and unconstitutional for the City of Hawkins to display the sign."

The letter, obtained by Christian Examiner through a third party, claims the sign – created and installed with private funds – "conveys both a government preference for religion over non-religion, and prefers Christianity over other religions."

"The display of religious messages on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public grounds from advancing, supporting or promoting religion," the letter from FFRF's staff attorney, Sam Grover, said.

"The 'Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins' sign sends a message to the City's citizens that the Hawkins government is endorsing and compelling belief in a particular god."

Most of the citizens of the town, located on Highway 80 between Crow and Big Sandy, are pushing back. At a standing-room-only city council meeting June 15, residents voiced support for city leaders and the sign. Some, however, expressed concern for the potential costs associated with a lawsuit from FFRF.

That's not a church. We're not welcoming you to a particular church. That sign says, 'Jesus Welcomes You' – the greatest human to ever walk the face of the planet, the most popular 'google.' He's googled more than any man in the world.

One resident claimed he did not like "Northern aggression" and said he did not like it when outsiders told the community how to live. Another resident said she believed "they" would eventually come after private religious expression.

"Rest assured it will not stop with one sign," the woman told the city council.

"It's not about a religion welcoming you, it's about what a community wants," another supporter of keeping the sign said. "This is us welcoming you. This is what we believe in."

But not all of the town's residents are Christian. In fact, it was a resident of the town who reportedly contacted FFRF. During the city council meeting, a man claiming to be an atheist said removing the sign was not an infringement on the rights of the town's Christians.

"It's not an infringement upon your rights any more than anyone else's," he said. "It doesn't matter what the majority says, we live in a constitutional republic. The constitutional republic is there to keep the majority from becoming too powerful."

Another female resident asked for the city to compromise with the FFRF.

"We can move the sign. We can make it bigger. We can do whatever we want with it once it's on private property," she said. "It's a simple answer that will not cost our town as much as it would to be in a lawsuit."

The 18-foot purple sign with yellow letters has been in place in Hawkins since 2011. Mayor Will Rogers, who asked for permission to put the sign up before he was elected mayor, worked with local high school students and businesses to fund the crafting and construction of the sign. At issue is where the sign is located – on city property.

FFRF claims recent Supreme Court decisions prohibit the use of such signs on public grounds, but that is not entirely correct. The Court has generally sought a middle way with respect to signage, even if it has sometimes left them ruling inconsistently. They have ruled that religious signs only violate the Constitution if they make an exclusive claim of religious truth – which the Hawkins sign does not.

In Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984, the high court even ruled government grounds can host items like Nativity scenes in recognition of the historical origins of a holiday celebrated by Americans, in that case Christmas.

In McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky in 2005, the Court ruled a newly-installed, stand-alone display of the Ten Commandments on public property was a violation of the First Amendment, but in the same year ruled a copy of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state capitol could remain because of its historical legacy and educational value.

The Hawkins sign, however, is neither a monument nor an exclusive claim of the divinity of Christ, which leads the town's mayor to believe the town could win a case against the FFRF.

"What violation is it for someone to welcome you into a town? If you don't believe that Jesus existed then he would be fiction," Mayor Rogers said during the council meeting. "If he's fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything, then you have to remove every fictional name from across the country. That means we couldn't say, 'Superman welcomes you to town.'"

The city council took no action on the sign during its meeting, but a survey will be completed to ensure that the sign is, in fact, standing on city property.

In an earlier interview with Tyler's KLTV, Rogers told the news station the town is "not a church."

"We're not welcoming you to a particular church. That sign says, 'Jesus Welcomes You' – the greatest human to ever walk the face of the planet, the most popular 'google.' He's googled more than any man in the world."

FFRF's letter also warned the city not to seek a legal workaround to avoid removing the sign.

"We understand that the City may be considering leasing the land on which the sign sits in order to protect the sign, but this action would not cure the City of violating the separation of church and state. If the City leases land to a private organization for this purpose, it will be acting with a religious purpose in violation of the Establishment Clause. Public land cannot be legally gifted to a religious organization so that it can raise or maintain a religious advertisement. Moreover, gifting the land would not change the appearance of governmental endorsement of the religious message. The sign would still appear to be on public property and given the sign's history, a reasonable observer would consider the sign to be government speech," the letter from FFRF said.