SAN ANTONIO (CN) – A group representing descendants of Alamo defenders claims in court that the Texas General Land Office and the manager of the San Antonio mission’s day-to-day operations have unlawfully silenced its members who oppose a site redevelopment plan and blocked them from holding religious services inside the Alamo Chapel.
According to the complaint filed Tuesday in San Antonio federal court, Charisma Villarreal, an aspiring member of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, attended a press conference last month in the Alamo Plaza and wore a t-shirt that read “Don’t Move the Cenotaph!” — a phrase expressing opposition to the Alamo Master Plan, a redevelopment project that will move the monument memorializing Alamo defenders 500 feet south of its current position. The plan goes before the San Antonio City Council on Oct. 18.
The lawsuit – filed against the Texas General Land Office, Commissioner George P. Bush and site manager Alamo Trust Inc. – says that Villarreal was approached by an Alamo Ranger after she entered the Alamo Chapel and was told that her shirt could not be worn inside the Alamo and must be turned inside-out or swapped for another one if she wanted to come inside.
The complaint states that the Alamo was a policy prohibiting “clothing, signs, images or expressions of a political nature in and around the Alamo Chapel on state-owned property,” which the plaintiffs argue “is a violation of the principles, rights and liberties for which the heroes of the Alamo fought and sacrificed their lives.”
According to the suit, Alamo Rangers similarly instructed an association member, Samantha White, to leave. She was wearing a shirt with the same message as Villarreal’s.
Villarreal and White say the Alamo is frequently used for public announcements, press conferences, speeches and other political expressions without incident, arguing the defendants’ policy has only been implemented to curtail criticism of Alamo management.
“My clients have been targeted for restrictions and prohibitions based on the content of their speech — their opposition to the plan to move the Alamo Cenotaph from its current location,” Art Martinez de Vara, a lawyer representing the descendants, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The Alamo Defenders Descendants Association also alleges that Alamo Trust has unfairly denied the group use of the chapel to hold a Christian prayer service memorializing the Alamo defenders, a tradition repeated annually for the past 20 years.
“Once a year we gather inside the Chapel on March 6 [and] we call out the name of the defenders … and have the descendants stand when their ancestor’s name is called,” Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, said in a Wednesday phone interview Wednesday.
“We are the proven bloodline,” White said. “This is not a family reunion group,”
The group claims the decision to keep its members from using the chapel is an unconstitutional demonstration of religious preference.
Ramón Vásquez, executive director of the nonprofit American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, confirmed Wednesday that the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation is allowed to perform a private ceremony in the chapel remembering the Native Americans whose remains were discovered under the church in a 1994 archeological project and subsequently reinterred.
In an email sent to White on Sept. 7, Sharon Skrobarcek — former president of the Alamo Mission chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which managed Alamo operations for 110 years until Land Commissioner Bush terminated the contract in 2015 — explained that the descendants will not be allowed to use the chapel for their service.
“The only group allowed to hold a ceremony inside the church will continue to be the Native American group. The reason for this is that there are actual Native Americans buried within the walls of the church,” Skrobarcek wrote. “My recommendation is to make the Defenders Descendants Association event magnificent by hosting it on the actual grounds where so many fought and died. It could be phenomenal!”
In a Wednesday evening statement to Courthouse News, Alamo Trust CEO Douglass McDonald said the filing of the lawsuit was “disappointing.”
“This is made even more disappointing by the fact that the Alamo did host the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association’s annual ‘Remember the Defenders’ ceremony this year, on March 6, 2018,” he said. “It was a wonderful ceremony that included a time of memorial inside the church. Ms. White was present at this event and spoke.”
An Alamo spokesman provided Courthouse News with a February letter sent to Alamo Defenders Descendants Association members by the group’s secretary, detailing the March 2018 ceremony. The letter said the ceremony would be held “outside in front of the Alamo Chapel” and that descendants would “quietly and reverently enter the Alamo Chapel for a few closing words and a prayer” at the end of the memorial service.
For White, this “time of memorial” was not enough.
“We were told we cannot have our ceremony inside the chapel, period,” White said after she heard McDonald’s response. She says that in past years, the entire ceremony took place inside the chapel. “Allowing us to buzz through there like it’s a car wash? No, I don’t consider that a ceremony.”
The Alamo spokesperson also contested the group’s free speech complaint, arguing that the Alamo Plaza, where he says public demonstrations are held, is under the jurisdiction of the San Antonio Police Department, not the Alamo Rangers.
The Alamo Defenders Descendants Association seeks nominal damages of $18.36, a reference to the year that 189 died defending the Republic of Texas in a 13-day siege led by Mexican President-General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Roughly 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded in the Battle of the Alamo.
The group also requests a court injunction allowing it to use the chapel for religious purposes.
“As far as the political speech policy, we want it evenly enforced. We’ve heard variously that it’s prohibited, to other folks saying it’s allowed; it needs clarity,” Martinez de Vara, the group’s attorney, said.
“We’re not against other groups being inside the Alamo at all, we’re just saying you can’t cherry-pick this,” added White, who calls the battle with the Texas General Land Office “a real David and Goliath struggle.”
“If the chapel is in good enough shape for tours to walk through all day long, it’s in good enough shape … for the real bloodline of the defenders of the Alamo for a few hours once a year,” White said.
According to an application on the association’s website, those seeking membership must present “wills, deeds, old letters, pension records, church records, old newspapers, tombstones [or] histories” indicating a “bloodline” relationship to either a “defender, noncombatant or courier” who was at the Alamo, or the sibling of one.
Land Commissioner Bush – who is the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush and grandson of former President George H.W. Bush –stepped down as chairman of the Alamo Trust board of directors in February amid accusations of secrecy and financial mismanagement.
Texas Republicans oppose the Alamo redevelopment plan. Delegates at the Texas GOP Convention in June added the following plank to the party platform: “We believe the Alamo should be remembered and not ‘reimagined.’ … We demand that the decision-making authority for the Alamo never be removed from Texas, and the custodians of the Alamo be required to … maintain transparency in finances and operations of the Alamo. Specific protection shall be afforded the site, including all land and existing monuments, including the Cenotaph, which SHALL NOT be moved from its present site.”
Bush signed off on the master plan, including the Cenotaph relocation, on Sept. 12. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg did the same Tuesday, allowing the issue to move to the city council for final discussion and approval.