An appeals court handed supporters of public religious displays a major victory Tuesday, ruling that a nativity scene outside an Indiana courthouse does not violate the U.S. Constitution.
At issue was a Christmas nativity scene in Brownstown, Ind., which depicts 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.
An Indiana citizen, Rebecca Woodring, sued the county and argued the nativity display violates the U.S. Constitution. She is an atheist.
But the U.S. Seventh Circuit of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, upheld the display as constitutional.
“We hold that the County’s nativity scene complies with the Establishment Clause,” Judge Amy J. St. Eve wrote in a majority opinion that was joined by Judge Diane P. Wood. St. Eve was nominated by President Trump, Wood by President Clinton.
The Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The majority opinion cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 American Legion v. American Humanist Association decision, in which the high 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.
“Applying American Legion, 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,” St. Eve wrote.
The appeals court also cited the 1983 Supreme Court case Lynch v. Donnelly, in which the justices upheld the constitutionality of a nativity display in Pawtucket, R.I. That display, too, was surrounded by secular objects.
“The nativity scene here is constitutional, insofar as it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to ‘depict the historical origins’ of Christmas – a ‘traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday,’” St. Eve wrote. “... The government’s celebration of Christmas comports with a broader pattern of government recognition of public holidays, Christian and non-Christian alike.”
Woodring argued the display “celebrates Christianity” and is a “religious display on government property,” according to court documents. She said she found it offensive and “believe[s] it is improper as it forces or projects a belief onto me that I do not share and it is not the role of government to project or endorse religious beliefs.”
Liberty Counsel, which represented the county, applauded the ruling.
“This is a great victory that affirms that the Jackson County holiday display does not violate the First Amendment,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The Supreme Court and many federal courts have ruled such displays are constitutional, especially when the display includes other secular symbols of the holiday, and this display in Jackson County is no exception.”
Photo courtesy: ©Liberty Counsel
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-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.