Federal Court Rules Courthouse Can Keep Nativity on Display

National   |   Brianna Lyman   |   Feb 3, 2021   |   7:06PM   |   Jackson, Indiana

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that an Indiana county courthouse can display a nativity scene without violating the Constitution.

The three judge panel ruled 2-1 that Indiana resident Rebecca Woodring did have standing to challenge the Jackson County Courthouse display during the Christmas season but ultimately ruled the display itself was not unconstitutional.

“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,” Judge Amy St. Eve, a Trump appointee, wrote for the majority.

Liberty Counsel, who represented Jackson County, Founder and Chairman Mat Staver called the ruling a “great victory,” in a statement.

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“This is a great victory that affirms that the Jackson County holiday display does not violate the First Amendment. 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.”

The suit was filed in December 2018 by the Indiana ACLU on behalf of Woodring. The suit argued the courthouse was endorsing a religion because the nativity scene depicts symbols of Christianity.

“The addition of Santa and the carolers does not in any way minimize the religiosity of the display as they are not integrated in any way into the display and are far removed from the crèche and would not be viewed as part of the display,” the lawsuit argued.

Tuesday’s decision reversed a decision from April by U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt, an Obama appointee, who ruled in favor of Woodring that the nativity scene did endorse Christianity and lacked a secular purpose.

St. Eve found the lower court used the wrong precedent to decide the case. St. Eve wrote the 2019 case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association is the prevailing guidance for such cases and must be used. The 2019 case found a World War 1 monument in the shape of a cross could remain up because it had taken on a secular significance.

Tuesday’s decision found the nativity scene included secular symbols and therefore had also taken on a greater meaning.

“The County’s nativity scene is part of a larger Christmas display that contains various other symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus in his sleigh, a reindeer, four carolers standing in front of a lamp post, and seven prominent candy-striped poles,” St. Eve wrote. “The government’s celebration of Christmas comports with a broader pattern of government recognition of public holidays, Christian and non-Christian alike.”

Becket Law, which filed a brief on behalf of the group that owned the nativity scene, also hailed the ruling as a win, noting “the ACLU can’t cancel Baby Jesus.”