Legal battle over county Nativity scene begins

The debate over whether the county can erect a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn during the holidays has made its way to the legal system.

Rebecca Woodring is named as the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 28 in the New Albany division of the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. District Court. That lawsuit requests that the county cease using the Nativity scene.

Indianapolis attorney Kenneth J. Falk of the ACLU of Indiana filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of Woodring.

The lawsuit lays out Woodring’s contentions the Nativity scene violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Nativity scene includes a lighted Mary, Joseph, a manger, wise men, animals and angels. Falk wrote that the display lacks a secular purpose and endorses the Christian faith.

Woodring believes the government should not endorse a religion, according to the lawsuit.

In the complaint, Woodring said she is a resident of Jackson County and travels to Brownstown multiple times a week and is “forced to come into direct and unwelcome contact with the Nativity scene there” when it is displayed, which has caused her “irreparable harm.”

Woodring’s address is not listed in the court documents, and efforts to contact her were unsuccessful. Falk also declined to discuss details about Woodring, including where she lives in the county and how long she has lived here.

The lawsuit requests the court prohibit the display from being put on the courthouse lawn and to declare Jackson County has violated Woodring’s rights and pay her costs and attorney fees.

Commissioner Matt Reedy on Wednesday declined to comment on the filing, citing pending litigation.

The lawsuit comes after a Dec. 13 letter sent to the county by Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to request the county immediately remove the Nativity scene after a local resident complained. It is unclear whether Woodring is the person who contacted the organization.

Hundreds of local residents rallied Dec. 22 on the courthouse lawn in support of the Nativity scene. Reedy and fellow Commissioner Bob Gillaspy attended the rally, which featured speakers, prayers, music and support. No counterprotesters attended the event.

County officials at the time said there were no plans to remove it ahead of Christmas and did not say whether it would be used again. Commissioners are expected to discuss hiring legal counsel during its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.

Reedy said at the Dec. 22 rally that the county was in discussions with Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Florida, and that the firm offered to defend the case for free.

The ACLU of Indiana, which is part of a national organization that regularly sues governments in civil liberty cases, has a similar case pending in Fulton County.

A hearing on the case has not been scheduled.