March 2021 Church & State Magazine - March 2021

Federal Appeals Court Allows Display Of Nativity Scene In Ind. County

  Federal Appeals Court Allows Display Of Nativity Scene In Ind. County

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.


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