Appeals Court Says Nativity Can Remain on Courthouse Lawn, Despite ACLU Complaint

Michael Foust | Contributor | Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Christmas nativity manger scene figurines

Appeals Court Says Nativity Can Remain on Courthouse Lawn, Despite ACLU Complaint

An Indiana county can legally display a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn thanks to an appeals court panel decision this week overturning a lower court ruling. 

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday issued a one-page order permitting the Brownstown, Ind., nativity scene, which shows Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus surrounded by the wise men, the shepherds and angels. The scene is part of a larger holiday display that also includes a depiction of Santa Claus, reindeer and Christmas carolers. Brownstown is the seat of Jackson County, Ind.

The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, reversed an April ruling by a district judge that declared the display unconstitutional and ordered it to be removed. The panel said the display can remain up while it considers the merits of the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the lawsuit on behalf of an Indiana citizen who is an atheist and says the display offends her. The government, she said in court briefs, should not be involved in religion.

Liberty Counsel represented the county and defended the nativity display in court.

“We are grateful that Jackson County will be able to include the Nativity scene in this year’s holiday display,” said Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver. “The Supreme Court and many federal courts have ruled such displays are constitutional.”

Liberty Counsel, in its briefs, quoted the 2019 case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, in which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 94-year-old cross-shaped war memorial that was at the center of a dispute between an atheist group and a veterans organization. It also quoted a 1984 case, Lynch v. Donnelly, in which the Supreme Court ruled constitutional a city’s nativity scene that was surrounded by other holiday displays.

The two judges in the majority on Tuesday, Judges Amy Joan St. Eve and Diane Wood, were nominated by Presidents Trump and Clinton, respectively. The dissenting judge, Judge David Hamilton, was nominated by President Obama. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt – who issued the April ruling – was nominated by President Obama.


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Photo courtesy: ©Unsplash/Alasdair Elmes

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.