Officials in Jackson County, Ind., may display a Nativity scene to celebrate Christmas, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, representing a local resident, challenged the lighted display in December 2018. The display had been erected in front of the county courthouse since 2003. It was later modified to include some secular Christmas items, such as Santa Claus, reindeer, holiday carolers and candy-striped poles.
“We conclude that the County’s nativity scene is constitutional because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas – a public holiday,” two judges with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the 2-1 ruling in Woodring v. Jackson County.
Writing in dissent, Judge David F. Hamilton asserted, “I disagree with the majority’s result because of the specific facts: the religious content dominates the county’s Christmas display here. … If the display is dominated by religious symbolism, with only minor or token secular symbols and symbols of other faiths, the message of endorsement calls for court intervention.”
In reaching the decision, the court majority cited American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a 2019 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the display of a towering Latin cross in a public park in Bladensburg, Md. The Supreme Court held – incorrectly, in AU’s view – that the cross, originally erected as a memorial to World War I veterans, had been displayed so long that it has lost some of its religious meaning and has become an important community landmark.