Hondo’s “God’s Country” sign

Mayor says God’s Country signs
staying right where they belong

By William Hoover

Anvil Herald Correspondent

     An anti-religion group based in Wisconsin has asked Mayor Jim Danner to remove Hondo’s iconic God’s Country signs on US Highway 90, claiming they are an unconstitutional and divisive government endorsement of religion.

     But Danner says the signs, which in one form or another have greeted travelers on US 90 since 1930, aren’t going anywhere.

The original sign, erected by the local Lions Club more than eight decades ago, read, “This is God’s Country. Don’t Drive Thru It Like Hell.”

However, in the 1960s the wording was changed to, “This is God’s Country. Please Don’t Drive Through It Like Hell,” to soften the tone and be more polite.

     The current signs are situated on land owned by the Union Pacific Railroad and leased to the City of Hondo.

     In a June 15 letter to the mayor, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote, “The display of the religious message, ‘THIS IS GOD’S COUNTRY’ on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public grounds from advancing, supporting or advancing religion.” 

     In her letter, Gaylor says her national non-profit organization, which has 24,000 members nationwide and almost 1,000 Texas residents, claims she is responding to the concerns of multiple Texans who complained the signs were divisive.

     “A prominent declaration to visitors and Hondo residents that ‘THIS IS GOD’S COUNTRY’ sends the message that nonbelievers are not welcome in the city,” she said. “By endorsing such a statement, the sign sends the message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members.

     “The message assumes a common god,” added Gaylor. “Yet, imagine the public outrage had the city posted a sign saying, ‘THIS IS VISHNU’s COUNTRY’ or ‘THIS IS NO GOD’S COUNTRY’.”

     On Monday, Danner told the San Antonio Express~News he expected the community to back his decision to not remove the signs from display.

     “There’s no way in hell we’re going to take those signs down,” he said. “I think when they find out we received that letter, we’ll have total support from the community to keep them.”

     The signs were removed around 2009, to accommodate the widening of US 90, and were re-erected in 2012 with new landscaping as part of $100,000 in improvements to the city parkway that include walkways, a monument honoring veterans, and a placard that lists local civic clubs. During that stretch of time, there was an outcry from tourists and residents alike who missed the signs and asked for their return.

     “For three years they were down and we received calls, letters and notes from all over the country wanting to know where our signs were,” Danner told the Anvil Herald on Tuesday. “The signs were missed by many people.

     “We have no intention to take the signs down now,” he said. “They are our biggest icon we have for the City of Hondo and its citizens.”

People of all faiths and no faith are welcome in Hondo, noted the mayor, who said city council will weigh in on the letter at their next regular meeting on Monday, July 11.

     “We have just about every kind of church there is in our city,” he said. “We sure haven’t had any churchgoing or non-churchgoing people here in Hondo ever complain about our signs.”

     “It will go to the next council meeting as a discussion or executive session item,” said the mayor. “We are one of the few cities around that opens council meetings with prayer. We’ve been doing that for 11 years and never had anybody say they objected. We are just that kind of city.”

     The mayor said he believes there are more important issues to address locally and nationally than community signage referencing a supreme being.

     “They are located in Madison, Wisconsin, and have like 20,000 members and we have millions of citizens in the USA,” he said. “These are activists who fight cities and others (over similar issues).

     “We have bigger issues to take on here in Hondo, like infrastructure and economic development, etc.,” said Danner. “This is just a distraction from what we are trying to do for our citizens.”

     City Attorney Frank Garza is preparing the city’s formal response to the FFRF, according to the mayor.

     “I’m hopeful this will go away,” he said. “God’s Country just indicates what kind of community we are. That is what is important. It doesn’t have anything to do with what religion people have or don’t have.”