Divided 7th Circuit reverses, lets Jackson County Courthouse Nativity stand

Lifting an injunction issued by a federal court, a divided panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled that a Nativity scene on the grounds of the Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown is not unconstitutional under a 2019 case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involves a Nativity scene placed on the public courthouse lawn in southern Indiana. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued an injunction in May that led to this appeal, which garnered interest on both sides of the issue.

The 49-page ruling in Rebecca Woodring v. Jackson County, Indiana,  20-1881, marked the latest divisive and perhaps inconclusive decision on an issue that has vexed courts for generations: where the Establishment Clause line should be drawn on religious displays on public property.

The majority of writing Judge Amy St. Eve and Judge Diane Wood found that under the Supreme Court’s decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, 139 S. Ct. 2067 (2019), the Jackson County Courthouse Nativity display was allowable.

In American Legion, justices in rule that a 40-foot-tall cross that serves as a World War I memorial could remain on public property. The Bladensburg Cross, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent.”

The 7th Circuit majority found that while Rebecca Woodring had standing to bring her claim as a resident of Jackson County who claims she is offended by the Nativity display, she has not shown the display itself offends the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“We hold today that American Legion displaces the purpose and endorsement tests in the context of Establishment Clause challenges to nativity scenes in passive Christmas displays on government property. Applying American Legion, we hold that Jackson County’s nativity scene as displayed in 2019 does not violate the Establishment Clause. We make no predictions as to how American Legion might affect other types of Establishment Clause cases,” the majority held.

But the majority conceded American Legion “is arguably ambiguous as to whether a specific monument, symbol, or practice must be longstanding, or whether it must simply fit into a longstanding tradition.”

Judge David Hamilton dissented and would have affirmed the injunction because the Nativity scene “sent a clear message of government endorsement of Christianity. In reversing, the majority departs from controlling Supreme Court precedent that the Supreme Court itself has left intact. It also overrules directly applicable Seventh Circuit precedent without sufficient reason.”

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