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Court rules Indiana courthouse can display nativity scene

Court rules Indiana courthouse can display nativity scene
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A U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday that an Indiana county courthouse can continue to display a nativity scene without violating the Constitution.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit sided with Jackson County in its ruling that the lighted nativity scene set up by a private group for Christmas did not violate the First Amendment’s ban on endorsing religion.

“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,” the judges wrote in the ruling.

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The decision reverses last April’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt, an Obama appointee, that decided the nativity scene in front of the courthouse “appears to endorse a religion—Christianity—and lacks a secular purpose.”

The Indiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the lawsuit in December 2018 on behalf of Rebecca Woodring, who had lived in the county since 2016. Woodring had asserted that the religious scene of baby Jesus in a manger placed in front of the government building amounted to state-sanctioned religion.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a brief on behalf of the nativity scene’s owner, celebrated the appeals court’s decision, saying in a release, “It turns out the ACLU can’t cancel Baby Jesus.”

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

A representative for the Indiana ACLU did not immediately return a request for comment.

Before the lawsuit was filed, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the county requesting the nativity scene that had been displayed since 2003 be removed from the courthouse lawn. 

In response, Jackson County moved secular aspects of the light display, including Santa Claus on a sleigh, reindeer, carolers and candy-striped poles, closer to the nativity scene “so that all items, secular and non-secular, appeared in one field of view” in a move intended to be “permanent,” according to court documents.