Since 1932, two memorable signs that proclaimed "This Is God's Country - Please Don't Drive Through It Like Hell" greeted people traveling through Hondo, Texas. When Freedom From Religion Foundation representatives asked city officials to remove the signs, Mayor Jim Danner said Monday, "There's no way in hell we're going to take those signs down."
FFRF Co-President Anne Laurie Gaylor referenced the establishment clause of the First Amendment in a letter sent to the city last week. She wrote the city-owned signs on public property "convey government preference for religion over non-religion" and send "the message that nonbelievers are not welcome in the city," reports the San Antonio Express-News.
"The message assumes a common god, yet imagine the public outrage had the city posted a sign that said, "This is Vishnu's Country," Gaylor told Danner in the letter. "It is equally inflammatory and inappropriate to post a sign dedicating a city to the god of the bible."
She said these signs in Hondo also could be misconstrued, and that city officials need to find an alternative way to promote safe driving. "Some people may want to flee 'God's Country' faster than hell," Gaylor adds. "Hondo officials could actually be encouraging drivers to speed with such signs."
Hondo City Attorney Frank Garza said his view is that the signs encourage driver safety, as opposed to endorsing a religion.
A formal response from the city is being drafted, according to the San Antonio Express-News, however Danner is voicing he will oppose removing the recently restored placards beside U.S. Route 90.
Danner said he predicts Hondo residents will totally support keeping the community signs when they find out the letter was received.
Local Lions Club members are credited with erecting the first iconic, "God's Country" sign 84 years ago. Danner said the only other complaints regarding the signs was in reference to their absence when the highway was widened between 2009 and 2012.
"We got tons of letters saying, 'Where's the signs?'" Danner told the Express-News. He said the community is very proud of the slogan, "God's Country."
The restored signs were unveiled with new landscaping in 2012, with the improvements funded jointly by the city, the local garden club and the economic development corporation.
City Manager Kim Davis said, "They're alleging that the signs make anyone who is not a Christian feel unwelcome. The mere fact that we often have people come to town to take a picture with the signs would say otherwise."
Wisconsin-based FFRF is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church. Its representatives indicate 1,000 of its 24,000 members are located in Texas. Foundation members also required a similar sign "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins" be taken down in the East Texas town of Hawkins.
See The Gospel Herald coverage from Dec. 30, 2015: Controversial 'Jesus Sign' in East Texas Prompts Showdown of Christian Versus First Amendment Rights
In Hawkins, the debate has become whether he city has any jurisdiction over the land beside U.S. 80 on which the sign sits. Hawkins' lawyer, Alvin Flynn, said the jurisdiction issue is being addressed in state district court in Wood County in a lawsuit involving the city, the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, which has claimed a stake in the parcel, and two prior owners of the site.
Foundation attorney Sam Grover said other U.S. community welcome signs elsewhere don't implicate the establishment clause. "We respect the right of every person in Hondo to practice whatever religion or non-religion they choose. The only problem here is that it's the government endorsing religion, rather than private entities."