Courthouse creche allowed
First Amendment | Court gives go-ahead to Indiana county’s Nativity scene
by Steve West
Posted 11/23/20, 01:44 pm
Jackson County, Ind., can enjoy its holiday cheer, at least for now. A federal appeals court on Thursday hit pause on a lower court order that found a Nativity scene in front of the county courthouse unconstitutionally promoted Christianity.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Jackson County to put up its display that includes the Nativity scene alongside other secular holiday symbols such as Santa Claus, carolers, and reindeer. Doug Pogue, president of the Brownstown Area Ministerial Alliance, welcomed the reprieve, saying the display symbolizes unity and goodwill: “In a time of such fear and uncertainty in our country, it’s heartbreaking to think that our town could lose this important symbol of hope.”
The American Civil Liberties Union submitted a complaint in 2018 on behalf of Rebecca Woodring, who said she was offended when she drove by the display. U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt in April ruled the decorations were unconstitutional, noting the Santa and carolers were at the far side of the display while the Nativity scene had a prominent placement. She also said the county only added the secular elements after an earlier complaint.
During oral arguments on Nov. 12, Liberty Counsel’s Horatio Mihet, who represented the county, compared the display to the Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland. In June 2019, the Supreme Court found the nearly century-old war memorial did not violate the First Amendment.
Fulton County resident Roger Lamunion, also supported by the ACLU, is challenging a Nativity scene that the Rochester, Ind., courthouse has displayed since 1980. In a brief filed Nov. 16, Liberty Counsel attorneys argue that “direct and unwelcome contact” with the display while driving by doesn’t give Lamunion standing to sue.
“Scrubbing religious symbols from the public square isn’t neutral—but hostile to religion,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Three courts of appeals have already followed the Supreme Court’s lead and recognized that principle. We are confident that the 7th Circuit will follow suit and preserve this beloved local display.”
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.