Federal Judge: Jackson Co. (IN) Courthouse Nativity Display is Unconstitutional May 2, 2020

Federal Judge: Jackson Co. (IN) Courthouse Nativity Display is Unconstitutional

A federal judge just ruled that a Nativity scene outside a former Indiana courthouse is unconstitutional. It’s not even a complicated case — this was obviously a promotion of religion — but it’s incredible how local officials didn’t even bother trying to hide what they were doing.

All of this took place in the city of Brownstown at the site of the Jackson County Courthouse. A couple of years ago, the court moved nearby and the building was converted to office space. The county’s treasurer, auditor, surveyor, and many others now work out of there.

In any case, starting around 2003, the Jackson County Commissioners approved a Christian Nativity display outside the building and it’s gone up around the holidays every year since. (Technically, it’s owned by the Brownstown Ministerial Association but it’s on government property.) There are lights nearby so that people can see it in the evenings, and that electricity is paid for by the government. Until 2018, this was unmistakably a pro-Christian display:

Viewed from the front of the Courthouse, to the right of the sidewalk, stood the lighted figures of the baby Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph near the child; two angels with upright trumpets on either side of the manger and animals and a man with a staff facing the mangers… Across the sidewalk are Magi with crowns, carrying gifts, pointed toward the manger and accompanied by a camel.

At some point, the display came to include Santa Claus, reindeer, and cutouts of carolers — all still promoting the Christian holiday.

That’s when the Freedom From Religion Foundation stepped in, sending a warning letter to the officials about the legal problems with this display. The county didn’t budge. They held a rally where two Commissioners spoke in favor of the display and others prayed. The display moved around a bit, but the underlying problem was still there.

Then came Rebecca Woodring. (It’s unclear if she’s the same person who alerted FFRF to the problem.) Woodring, a Jackson County resident, filed a lawsuit against the County arguing that this was government endorsement of religion.

Since the facts weren’t in question, it was up to a judge to decide whether the County’s display was legal. In a ruling released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said that Woodring had legal standing to bring the case and that she was right on the merits.

… two facts persuade the Court that this Nativity scene would give a reasonable observer the impression that the government is endorsing a religion. The first of those facts is the geography of the display. A picture of the Courthouse lawn shows that Santa and the carolers are placed to the far side of the display, away from the more centralized Nativity display, which straddles the sidewalk subdividing the lawn… The crèche is the vast majority of the display because it is arranged to straddle the sidewalk, making it appear much larger than the solitary Santa figure… The carolers have been placed in the back of the display, lessening the attention they would draw from an observer…

The second fact that convinces the Court that the Nativity scene would give the impression of a religious endorsement is the scene’s history. For many years, it was only a Nativity scene, with no secular elements at all. From roughly 2000 until 2018, the display consisted solely of a Nativity scene. But in 2018, in response to a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation questioning the display’s constitutionality, the President of the County Commissioners, Matt Reedy, physically moved Santa Claus and his sleigh and reindeer and the carolers to a place nearer the crèche… “The reasonable observer is aware of the situation’s history and context”… The addition of less prominent secular symbols at the fringes of the display is not enough to counteract the impression a reasonable observer would have gotten from seeing the Nativity display placed on the lawn of the Courthouse for nearly 20 years. The Court has no doubt that a sufficient balancing between secular and non-secular elements could bring this display into harmony with the First Amendment despite its history, but that balancing has not occurred here. Thus, the display fails the endorsement test.

In short, you’re putting the pro-Christian stuff right up front and relegating the more cultural aspects (like Santa) to the side, and you’ve been doing this forever, so don’t act like you ever cared about representing anyone but Christians.

The end result is that the County is banned from putting the same display back up in the future and the County (i.e. taxpayers) will have to pay Woodring’s legal bills and then some.

It could have all been avoided had the County simply said Christian displays have no business in the public square. Put them up in front of your churches or on your lawns, but the courthouse isn’t the place for it. They failed to do so, and now they’ll have to pay the price.

(via Religion Clause)


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