A national organization that promotes the separation of church and state has asked the county to remove the Nativity scene from the courthouse lawn.
In a letter mailed to Jackson County Commissioners, Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Ryan D. Jayne wrote that a “concerned local citizen” contacted the organization and requested it look into whether the county could look into the matter.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based organization reviewed the inquiry and requested the county to immediately remove the lighted Nativity display that spans both sides of the courthouse lawn.
“It is unlawful for the county to maintain, erect or host a holiday display that consists solely of a Nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion,” Jayne wrote.
The display at the courthouse features a lighted Mary and Joseph in a barn and a manger and has been displayed on the courthouse lawn, 111 S. Main St., Brownstown, for a number of years throughout the holiday season. It also includes wise men, animals and angels.
The letter said there were no other holiday decorations that singled out and showed preference for one religion. Jayne requested a written response from the county about how it planned to “remedy this violation of the First Amendment” and included favorable court decisions on the subject.
As of Wednesday, the Nativity scene remained, and it seems county officials will not take it down.
Commissioners President Matt Reedy said he had not received the letter, which was dated Dec. 13 and mailed to the courthouse, but said the county plans to remove it after Christmas.
An electronic version was emailed to Commissioner Drew Markel, according to the letterhead.
The matter was not discussed during the commissioners meeting Tuesday morning in the Jackson County Courthouse Annex.
Jayne described the scene as a “crystal clear Constitutional violation.”
“That’s why we wrote the letter,” he said.
Jayne said the organization receives about 5,000 similar requests each year but only sends about 1,000 letters. More than half of the letters are sent to schools, he said.
Jayne wrote that such displays should be placed on private property or church grounds, and it forces taxpayers of all or no faiths to support an expression of worship.
The organization has received less than 100 Nativity complaints across the country this year, Jayne said. It has 32,000 members across the country and 450 in Indiana, according to the letter.
Jayne declined to name the resident who made the request, which he said is the organization’s policy to protect those who contact them from potential harm.
The person used the organization’s web contact form to make the request, Jayne said, and included a photo taken by The Tribune during its coverage of Brownstown’s Hometown Christmas event Dec. 3. That photo also was enclosed in the letter sent to commissioners.
Reedy said the resident should have made a request during a commissioners meeting instead of reaching out to a Wisconsin-based organization.
“You can get on the agenda and share your concerns,” he said. “We take everyone’s concerns seriously.”
Reedy said he wouldn’t give much consideration to the letter because the commissioners handle such requests from people, not letters.
“Letters signed by groups — or anonymous — do not merit much attention,” he said.
As far as plans to remove the display, Reedy maintained it will come down after Christmas. He said he would not speculate about whether it will be placed at the courthouse again next year. Reedy cited Matthew 6:34 as a reason why. The verse encourages Christians to not worry about the future because the present has its own concerns.
“I don’t know if we’ll be here next year, so I’m not going to speculate,” he said.
Jayne said the organization prefers the display be taken down immediately but would follow up next year if the Nativity scene is used again. He said the organization prefers to handle issues through discussion and education, rather than lawsuits, but action is never taken off of the table.
“As long as they leave this religious display up, they’re vulnerable to a lawsuit from us or anybody else,” he said.
Reedy added he is doing what most of his constituents expect of him.
“I think most of my constituents probably have Nativity scenes up. I think I’m doing what a majority of my constituents want me to do anyway,” he said.
Reedy said the courthouse lawn also includes information about veterans, prompting him to question whether the organization has concerns about it.
“Is that offensive to them, as well?” he said. “If they would come in public, I would ask them that. Instead, they’re hiding behind ink.”