FFRF, ACLU sue over Indiana courthouse crèche

A large Christian nativity scene on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn in Brookville, Ind., was removed the day after Christmas instead of staying up through at least mid-January, as has typically been the case for the past 50 years. The early removal came pursuant to a federal lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in late December.

The county had also added a disclaimer to the crèche for what appears to be the first time.

The ACLU of Indiana, which is representing FFRF and its courageous local plaintiffs, Steve Kristoff and Renana Gross, sued the county Dec. 16, four years after FFRF first complained on behalf of local residents about the annual violation. The life-sized nativity scene was once even erected at the foot of a flagpole, attempting to tie religion to patriotism. FFRF kept complaining, with the county moving the religious scene even closer to the courthouse entrance in 2011.

Plaintiffs are represented by ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Gavin Rose. FFRF Staff Attorneys Rebecca Markert and Sam Grover are co-counsel.

The Thomas More Society of Chicago, a Catholic group, is representing Franklin County, which agreed to remove the nativity promptly in an agreement overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt.

In response to the suit, the county adopted on Jan. 12 its first codified policy for erecting courthouse displays. The policy specifies that “a permit for use of the courthouse grounds will be made on a nondiscriminatory basis and will not be based on the religious or political content” of a display.

Peter Breen, Thomas More Society special counsel, said, “With the enactment of this ordinance, the allegations of the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Freedom from Religion Foundation are moot.”

To that, FFRF had this to say: “Hold on just a minute, for Pete’s sake.”

Getting the county to adopt an official policy on displays is a victory, but it’s not the only victory that FFRF hopes to achieve through its litigation. FFRF’s claim that the county’s continued, seasonal display of the nativity violated the rights of non-Christians remains a live issue in the case.

Litigation will continue on that issue in order to establish that the county violated the rights of its citizens and to better restrict what sort of involvement the county can have in endorsing displays in the future.

Moving forward will also allow FFRF to uncover just how much preferential treatment the county has given to the display and to depose Commissioner Tom Wilson, who ranted to a reporter last year: “If we don’t start standing up for our rights, we’re going to lose them. The atheists and the liberals are taking over our country. They are the ones demonstrating and doing everything, and we’re the ones sitting back and doing nothing.”
Wilson added, “Pretty soon, one morning we’re going to wake up and our freedoms are going to be gone. We’ll have a socialist government or a dictator telling us what to do.”

Ever since FFRF’s first complaint in 2010, locals have rallied by the nativity to support keeping Christian worship scenes at the seat of county government.

“We are not a Christian nation, Indiana is not a Christian state, and Franklin County is not a Christian county,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Government needs to stay neutral and should not be turning Christians into insiders and the rest of us into outsiders.”

The discovery phase of the suit is under way and should be completed by early April.

The case, No. 1:14-cv-02047-TWP-DML, is in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.

Freedom From Religion Foundation