Federal judge denies motion to dismiss suit against Jackson Co. nativity scene

A southern Indiana woman accusing her local government of endorsing Christianity has cleared the first hurdle of a motion to dismiss her claim that a nativity scene placed on the Jackson County Courthouse’s front lawn violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Rebecca Woodring, a Jackson County resident, sued the county for setting up a nativity scene displaying the birth of Jesus Christ each December over the past several years. The county courthouse, which faces the main street of Brownstown, contains government offices surrounded by a large lawn with sidewalks leading to the building entrance.

Typically, Woodring says, the lawn is bare throughout the year – except during the month of December.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to the county in 2018 complaining about the scene. In response, Santa Claus and caroler figurines were placed to the far side of the display. But “Woodring asserts that these secular symbols are far enough away from the nativity scene that they are not part of the display, and even if they were part of the display, it would appear that Santa Claus and a band of carolers are praising the birth of the baby Jesus.”

Woodring then sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting Jackson County from displaying the nativity scene at the courthouse, and the county moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Specifically, Jackson County argued that because the lawn included secular symbols as well as the nativity scene, the display was constitutional as a matter of law.

However, Indiana Southern District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied the county’s motion to dismiss in a Monday order, finding a reasonable viewer would be given the impression of a government religious endorsement based on the where the nativity scene was placed. Pratt said nativity scene appeared to be the thrust of the display, while the secular symbols appeared to have been added as afterthoughts.

“Jackson County argues that the display includes only ‘one religious symbol (a Nativity scene) and two secular symbols (Santa Claus and carolers).’ But the Court is less concerned with the raw number of symbols than it is with the actual appearance of the display, in which the crèche seems to be much larger than the secular symbols,” the federal judge wrote.

The district court further determined that due to the courthouse’s history of displaying only a nativity scene for many years prior to the complaint, it could not say as a matter of law that “balancing between secular and non-secular elements could bring the display into harmony with the First Amendment… .”

“The Court is not persuaded that Jackson County’s nativity scene, as described in Woodring’s Complaint … has enough non-religious elements to comply with the Establishment Clause,” Pratt concluded. “At this stage of the proceedings, it appears both that the government in Jackson County is endorsing a religion — Christianity — and that it lacks a secular purpose for erecting the nativity scene. Thus, the court denies Jackson County’s Motion to Dismiss.”

The case is Rebecca Woodring v. Jackson County, Indiana, 4:18-cv-00243.

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