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Christmas comes early in Indiana with nativity scene court case

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CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:00 am MT (CNA).- An Indiana town is defending its Christmas display in court this summer, after a traveller through the area claimed she was offended by the sight of a nativity scene on public land in 2018. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on August 3, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said that a Supreme Court ruling last year meant the display should stay.

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association purchased a light-up nativity scene in 2003 and began to display it in front of the Jackson County Courthouse during Christmastime. The display is part of a town-wide “Hometown Christmas” event that is sponsored in part by several local businesses, including the Brownstown Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson County Historical Center, and the town’s McDonald’s.

In 2018, Jackson County was sued by a woman who was traveling through the town, spotted the nativity scene, and claimed she was offended by its presence and that its location amounted to the promotion of Christianity by the county. The nativity scene features both religious and secular figures, including the Holy Family, Santa Claus, and reindeer.

“The annual nativity isn’t just a beloved holiday tradition, it’s a symbol of unity and God’s ‘goodwill to all men’ during the Christmas season,” Doug Pogue, president of the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association was quoted saying in a press release.

“In a time of such fear and uncertainty in our country, it’s heartbreaking to think that our town could lose this important symbol of hope,” said Pogue.

On May 1 this year, Judge Tanya Wilton Pratt of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against the county in the case Woodring v. Jackson County and said that the nativity scene was an unconstitutional display. The county has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Becket, which is representing the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association, disagrees, and noted in the brief that the Supreme Court had regularly permitted religious-themed monuments on public land.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that a war memorial containing a cross was constitutional, even though it was on publicly-maintained land. In that case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the court ruled 7-2 that the Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and could remain on public land and be maintained by public funds.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that “a government that roams the land tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

“The Supreme Court has already protected religion in the public square,” Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket told CNA in a statement Wednesday. “This is a no brainer. The Seventh Circuit should follow suit and protect this nativity scene.”

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