Back in December, I wrote about a Nativity Scene in Brookville, Indiana that had been up for over 50 years, despite warning letters (over the course of several years) from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to take it down.
The display is owned by the Town of Brookville and sat on the grounds of the Franklin County Courthouse.
The defenders of the display kept clinging to the same old arguments as usual: It’s tradition. Just look away. Why do you hate Christmas?!
None of them wanted to address the legal issues.
The commissioners said they have been ignoring the letters, and instead rallying and fighting to keep the nativity there.
“If people don’t like the look of it I think they can look the other way, or don’t look at all. It’s been a tradition here for many, many years and I hope it’s for many more years. I think we deserve the right to put up what the community wants and I don’t think anybody else should tell us what to do,” Brookville resident Wayne Monroe said.
“We” was the key word there. Residents can put up whatever they want on their own property. The city, however, can’t promote a particular religion. It’s that simple.
After receiving complaints by local residents, FFRF first contacted Franklin County about its unconstitutional nativity in 2010. That year the nativity scene was erected at the foot of the flag pole. FFRF renewed complaints in 2011 and 2013. The county refused to take down the religious scene, moving it closer to the courthouse entrance in 2011. Community members have held annual rallies around it, where a commissioner was quoted this year as saying, “The atheists and the liberals are taking over our country.”
“There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed, said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Once Franklin County enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing citizens of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of religion.”
The lawsuit called for the display to be taken down immediately and for the county to pay all of FFRF’s relevant legal bills.
To an extent, that worked. The display was taken down after Christmas. But the lawsuit was still moving forward because nothing was changing for the future.
The ordinance, adopted by the County’s Board of Commissioners this week, formalizes the county’s prior informal policy, namely:
– To allow displays, demonstrations, exhibits, rallies, and other expressive activities on courthouse grounds, without regard to the viewpoint of those activities;
– To provide all county citizens with equal access to the courthouse grounds; and
– To apply a uniform, neutral permit application process.
That sounds pretty good to me at the time… but it’s the provision that gave “county citizens” equal access to the courthouse grounds that proved problematic.
It’s basically a way to limit access to the Christian majority in the town. FFRF, for example, may have some members in the county, but The Satanic Temple does not. So is their free speech restricted?
In a press release after the ordinance passed, Jocelyn Floyd, associate counsel for the society, claimed, “A public forum, such as the Franklin County Courthouse lawn, is open to speech from all citizens on any topic, religious speech included. If people disagree with a message being proclaimed in a public forum, the proper response is to apply and put up their own display as well, not try to shut down the displays of other citizens.”
“That welcome message apparently doesn’t apply to atheists,” noted Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President. “When FFRF applied to place a charming display celebrating the Dec. 15 ‘nativity’ of the Bill of Rights, we were rejected. The county cannot create a public forum only for Christianity or majority views.”
Similarly, when the Satanic Temple applied to place “an artistic three-dimensional sculpture” mounted on a wooden platform, its application was denied.
FFRF, with the Satanic Temple as co-plaintiff, is asking the court to allow the displays.
The county currently limits applicants to Franklin County citizens. FFRF contends this requirement violates its First Amendment rights and is asking the court to enter an injunction allowing the displays.…
The lawsuit specifically alleges:
The requirement of the Ordinance that persons wishing to use the Courthouse lawn be residents of the County is not narrowly tailored to advance an important government interest, nor is it reasonably related to a legitimate government interest.
This requirement also does not leave FFRF or TST ample alternative channels through which they may reach their intended audience.
In the event that FFRF and/or TST are unable to erect their displays during the requested period of time in 2015 and 2016, they will suffer damages.
I don’t know if the FFRF/ACLU side will be successful, but what’s appalling to me is how strongly the county is fighting to prevent non-Christian displays from appearing on the courthouse grounds. All they have to do is get out of the religion game, leaving the Nativity Scenes to local churches and private homes, and the lawsuits would go away.
But they want to promote Christianity through the government and they’ll fight tooth and nail to make it happen.
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier)