Federal judge denies county’s motion to dismiss Nativity case


The legal case to decide whether a Nativity scene can be placed on the Jackson County Courthouse lawn during the holidays will move forward after a federal judge denied the county’s motion to dismiss it.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case Monday.

The county argued its display included both secular and religious items, making it permissible in the wake of a lawsuit filed by county resident Rebecca Woodring in December 2018 in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana.

Woodring sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the county from displaying the Nativity scene at the courthouse. She is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

Florida-based Liberty Counsel represents the county.

After a Dec. 13 complaint filed on behalf of an unnamed individual by Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, the county moved secular symbols, including a Santa Claus and carolers, closer to the Nativity.

Pratt wrote in her order that the court had not been persuaded that the Nativity scene had been altered with enough non-religious elements to comply with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The clause, held in case law, allows the practice that if something has violated the Establishment Clause in the past, it can become constitutional if it adds enough secular elements or elements of other religions, Pratt wrote.

"At this stage of the proceedings, it appears both that the government in Jackson County is endorsing a religion — Christianity — and that it lacks a secular purpose for erecting the Nativity scene," she wrote.

Pratt wrote in court documents that a "reasonable observer" would be given the impression the government is endorsing a religion because it is on a courthouse lawn and that it historically has included only a Nativity scene.

The county contended the display included one religious symbol — the Nativity scene — and two secular symbols because of the Santa Claus and carolers.

Walton wrote that that accounting was "suspect" and the court is "less concerned with the raw number of symbols than it is with the actual appearance of the display, in which the crèche seems to be much larger than the secular symbols."

The decision comes after the county sent a letter in July to the Brownstown Lions Club and suggested that if there is a Christmas display on the courthouse lawn this year, it should include the changes made in December 2018.

Those changes were to move other lit decorations, considered non-religious items, closer to the Nativity scene. Those decorations included a Santa Claus, reindeer, a sleigh, carolers and more.

"It shall contain at least as many and as large non-religious items as were displayed in 2018 and prior," commissioners wrote.

Commissioners stated in the letter those changes were to be permanent and decorations should be placed so "that all items can be seen in one field of view when looking at the front of the courthouse without having to scan left or right."

No posts to display