June 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A federal court has ruled that officials in Jackson County, Ind., violated the Constitution by allowing the display of a nativity scene in front of the courthouse in December.

The religious display is owned by the Brownstown Ministerial Association. It has been placed on the courthouse lawn in Brownstown since 2003, reported the Seymour Tribune, a local newspaper. No other religious displays were erected alongside it.

In 2018 a Seymour resident, Rebecca Woodring, sued over the display. Woodring, an atheist, said she considered the county’s display of the crèche to be an endorsement of Christianity. Her lawsuit was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled in Woodring’s favor on May 1.

“Jackson County has violated the rights of Woodring and its other citizens by displaying a religious symbol on government property in violation of the First Amendment,” Pratt wrote. “Jackson County is hereby enjoined from displaying the crèche as presently presented on the lawn of the historical courthouse.”

After Woodring had filed the suit, county officials added some nonreligious items to the display, including a figure of Santa Claus and some holiday carolers. They then asked Pratt to dismiss the case. Pratt was not swayed, and held that the display still had the effect of advancing religion.

“Here ... the Nativity scene is not on its own. It is accompanied by two other arguably secular symbols of Christmas: Santa Claus and a group of Christmas carolers,” Pratt wrote. “Nevertheless, 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. .... 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.”

Continued Pratt, “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.”

Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group, represented the county and attempted to argue that Wood­ring should not be able to bring the legal challenge because she could not show she was injured by the religious display. But Wood­ring countered that she often had business at the courthouse, where she had to see the display.

Members of the County Commission are considering an appeal. (Wood­ring v. Jackson County, Indiana)