Fort Worth has a history of being less than welcoming to atheists. Four years ago, Metroplex Atheists gained tacit city approval to hang banners reading “In No God We Trust” to promote an event for the nonprofit that represents atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. Then-mayor Betsy Price publicly distanced herself from the advertisements in public spaces but cautioned Bible-thumping complainants to respect free speech.
Those days of compromise — and abiding by constitutionally protected free speech — may now be gone.
The City of Fort Worth, based on court filings, recently snubbed that same atheistic group by blocking a new line of banners, these emblazoned with “Keep God Out of Public Schools,” even though Metroplex Atheists followed city guidelines when applying for approval last November. The large ads to hang in and around downtown were intended to promote Metroplex Atheists’ panel discussion, No Strings Attached, on Sat, Aug 26 at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, said his national nonprofit that sometimes litigates on behalf of local atheistic groups cautiously looked into the matter before filing the civil rights lawsuit in the Fort Worth division of the Northwest District Court of Texas. Fish said the city has given inconsistent reasons for rejecting Metroplex Atheists’ application, including saying the event was too small to qualify. Fish isn’t buying the seemingly arbitrary defense.
“The city created artificial barriers to deny this opportunity after months of [Metroplex Atheists members] going back to the city to make sure that they were following the policies,” Fish said. Fort Worth staffers “never presented [our groups] with any changes in policy. They made up this reason around the scope and scale of the event. It is the sort of [policy] that is ripe for abuse. If that is the policy that exists, that would also be unconstitutional.”
Fish said the short-term goal of the lawsuit is to compel the city to honor its initial commitment to allow Metroplex Atheists to hang the promotional signs. The civil rights lawsuit, Fish said, may lead to a jury trial that could force Fort Worth to pay damages and cover American Atheists’ legal fees.
In an email, a city spokesperson said, “The city is aware of the lawsuit, believes that it acted appropriately, and will defend its position in court.”
The topics scheduled for No Strings Attached are relevant to and important for all Fort Worthians, Fish said, referring to the event’s focus on the dangers of Christian Nationalism. Indeed, our magazine’s recent reporting spotlights the role that Mercy Culture Church played in the election of County Judge Tim O’Hare and State Rep. Nate Schatzline. The person who runs the Northside megachurch infamous for preaching bigotry and Fox Nation lies, Landon Schott, routinely violates federal laws by using his services to urge congregants to vote for right-wing candidates who vilify nonwhites and the queer community. Fish said the dangerous entanglement of church and state which gained momentum with the evangelical support of criminally indicted and twice-impeached rapist Donald Trump is a problem festering across the country.
White Christian Nationalism is “not just a threat to atheists,” he continued. “White Christian Nationalism is also a threat to Christians. Some of the most important voices in the pushback against that movement are Christians. They see how their faith is being weaponized and twisted. The rise and influence of Christian Nationalism is accelerating. There is a sense of pride in how these people flout rules [separating church and state]. The IRS seems unwilling to enforce commonsense rules barring churches from endorsing candidates. Those rules don’t prevent churches from speaking out on issues. They are intended to prevent churches from abusing their tax-exempt status” and turning their places of worship into Super PACs for the Republican Party.
To resolve the issues in court now, Fish said, the City of Fort Worth must acknowledge their error and begin to honor their commitment to post the banners.
“If they want to amend the policy moving forward, we are happy to provide guidance to let them know if the changes make sense,” Fish added, referring to legal advice that could prevent other potentially costly lawsuits.