Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Indiana Nativity display

September 25, 2015

A federal judge has granted the motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought last year challenging a Nativity scene erected annually outside the Franklin County courthouse.

Since 2010, the nativity scene has depicted with life-size figures the birth of Jesus Christ. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana brought the suit on behalf of the nationwide nonprofit Freedom From Religious Foundation Inc. and two Franklin County residents, challenging the constitutionality of the display. As a result of the lawsuit, the county board of commissioners enacted an ordinance in January regarding the grounds surrounding the courthouse that provides a new policy with a content- and viewpoint-neutral permit approval process and size restrictions of the displays, among other regulations.

The county, represented by the Thomas More Society, asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. The plaintiffs withdrew their request for injunction relief in December and filed an amended complaint January 6 seeking prospective relief and a request for nominal damages.

“Due to the enactment of Ordinance 2015-02, the Court cannot draw a reasonable inference that Franklin County could be liable for any misconduct alleged in FFRF’s Amended Complaint. Although FFRF reserves the right to challenge any and all future displays on the Courthouse lawn through separate litigation, this present litigation does not establish a claim for which the pleader, FFRF, may be entitled to prospective relief. Because there is no actual injury that can be redressed, FFRF’s requests for injunctive relief, costs and attorney’s fees, and awards for other ‘proper’ relief cannot be awarded because they are no longer plausible,” Judge Tanya Walton Pratt wrote in her Wednesday decision.

The plaintiffs continued with their lawsuit for nominal damages, without the corresponding request for prospective relief. Whether a claim exclusively for nominal damages presents a live controversy has presented a split among the various federal Circuit courts, Pratt noted.

“The Court finds that FFRF’s legally cognizable interest of eliminating constitutional violations of the Establishment Clause no longer exists. Accordingly, FFRF cannot use nominal damages to compensate for past wrongs such as the acts being alleged in FFRF’s Amended Complaint. By allowing FFRF to proceed to determine the constitutionality of a policy that has been voluntarily amended to cease illegal conduct, in hope of receiving $1.00, vindicates no rights and is not a task of the federal courts. Therefore, under the law in the Seventh Circuit and facts of this case, a claim for nominal damages alone is not sufficient enough to maintain federal court jurisdiction in a case that is otherwise moot,” Pratt wrote.  


Recent Articles by Jennifer Nelson