County appeals Nativity display ruling

The law firm representing Jackson County in the case involving the Nativity scene displayed on the courthouse lawn has officially filed an appeal regarding a recent decision declaring it unconstitutional.

Liberty Counsel announced the county’s decision Tuesday to ask the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to review federal Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s May 1 ruling.

In the appeal, the county contends the Nativity scene displayed during the holidays each year is part of a broader display that is not exclusively religious.

In her ruling, Pratt, who serves as a judge in the New Albany Division of the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. District Court, said the display violated the civil rights of Seymour resident Rebecca Woodring and needed to be removed.

Woodring filed a lawsuit Dec. 28, 2018, contending the county is promoting Christianity to her and other county residents through the Nativity scene. Woodring is an atheist and believes government should not be involved in religious activity, according to court documents.

Besides the Nativity scene, the county maintains the display also includes a large lighted Santa Claus, sleigh with reindeer and a group of Christmas carolers, according to Liberty Counsel, who is representing the county at no cost.

The courthouse grounds also is decorated with many kinds of lights and other nonreligious symbols during the holiday season.

The Nativity scene is owned by the Brownstown Ministerial Association and cared for by the Brownstown Lions Club. It has appeared on the courthouse lawn nearly every holiday season since 2003.

Liberty Counsel, based in the Orlando, Florida, area, contends the judge wrongly found the plaintiff had standing to sue, despite the fact she does not live in the county, transact business at the old county courthouse and did not alter her behavior whatsoever.

Woodring has previously disputed claims she does not live in the county.

“I live here and have for roughly three years now,” she said.

Liberty Counsel also provided some legal precedent concerning the county’s belief that Pratt should have ruled in its favor because the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal appeals courts have recognized that government entities may recognize Christmas as a holiday and may maintain Christmas displays that include both religious and secular symbols.

“Jackson County’s holiday display does not violate the First Amendment,” said Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “We look forward to the Court of Appeals correcting the opinion of the federal judge. The Supreme Court and many federal courts have ruled such displays are constitutional, especially when the display includes other secular symbols of the holiday, and this display in Jackson County is no exception.”

In the past, the firm also has contended the case could be pushed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because of what they believe to be flawed reasoning on both the issue of Woodring’s standing and the Establishment Clause.