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Indiana county wins appeal to display Nativity scene

Appeals_Court.jpg Credit: Natalia Bratslavsky

A federal appeals court on Tuesday allowed an Indiana county to display a nativity scene at its courthouse. 

 

A three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a nativity display in front of the Jackson County courthouse is constitutional. 

 

The ACLU of Indiana had sued the county in 2018 over the display, on behalf of county resident Rebecca Woodring. She said the display “conveys the county’s endorsement of a religious message.” 

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In their majority opinion on Tuesday, Judges Diane Wood and Amy St. Eve said that the display “fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas—a public holiday.” 

 

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, the firm representing Jackson County, called the ruling “a great victory” that confirms the 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,” Staver said.  

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The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association, a local coalition of Christian ministers, owns the nativity display and purchased it in 2003; it has been featured since then in the town’s “Hometown Christmas celebration.”

 

The Indianapolis Star reported that the Christmas scene in front of the government building in Brownstown, in Jackson County, also includes secular imagery of Santa Claus and candy canes. 

 

After Woodring sued in a lower court, the court initially ruled in her favor. The county then appealed the decision. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the county on Tuesday. 

 

Judge David Hamilton, who dissented from the Seventh Circuit majority opinion, said the courthouse nativity display “sent a clear message of government endorsement of Christianity.”

 

The religious liberty law firm Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the county, said that Tuesday’s ruling is “common sense.”

 

Diana Verm, Senior Counsel at Becket, said in a statement, “Most people don’t think Christmas decorations ought to be a federal issue.”

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“This decision doesn’t just follow Supreme Court precedent, it also follows common sense: the Establishment Clause protects against coercive government action, not harmless displays of holiday cheer,” Verm said.  

 

A spokesperson for ACLU of Indiana—which represented Woodring—did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

 

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