County policy change moots Wis. nativity suit

It’s chilling when a federal judge starts his decision on a state-church case like this: “Christianity teaches that ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’ John 3:16.”

That was U.S. District Judge William Griesbach ruling April 22 in the Foundation’s suit against Manitowoc County, Wis., for hosting a prominent display of a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn for more than 60 years.

Griesbach ruled that the county’s enactment of a written policy in 2009 rendered the Foundation’s complaint, filed in 2008, moot.

“Because citizens will now have open access, any nativity scene displayed in the future would not be seen as a government-sponsored message but simply as the message of a citizen group taking advantage of an open forum,” Griesbach wrote.

The display, erected by the Catholic Women’s Club and the Knights of Columbus, includes the figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a shepherd, a camel, four lambs and a blond-haired angel holding a sign with the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”).

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said she’d prefer that no religious displays be placed on any government property and was “floored by the judge’s gratuitous preaching. Manitowoc County for more than half a century brazenly showed favoritism and endorsement of Christianity and Catholicism.”

FFRF’s suit successfully forced the county to open the space up as a bona fide public forum, in theory allowing equal access to all groups and ending the preferential treatment for the Catholic Women’s Club, Gaylor added.

The county’s policy says permits will be issued “on a nondiscretionary basis and will not be based on the religious or political content of the activity, display, or exhibit.” Displays must “be consistent with the intent and decorum of the seat of county government and the appropriate, nondisruptive use of a public facility.” Space is first-come, first-served.

The Foundation expected the case to be mooted after the county adopted a policy post-suit, but is still weighing options to appeal Griesbach’s ruling that the onerous insurance requirements to be eligible to seek permits are lawful.

“We will be testing the policy next December,” Gaylor said. “The Foundation will definitely seek to put up our Winter Solstice display to bring reason’s greetings to residents.”

The Foundation also questions how officials will maintain neutrality given previous public statements. Supervisor Norbert Vogt, who also sits on the Public Works Committee, stated that the county should not allow atheists to put up a sign declaring “There is no God” because “everybody” accepts the reality of a Supreme Being.

County Executive Bob Ziegelbauer told WBAY-TV late last year that “Because of the reality of the lawsuit, we have more formalized what we have been doing all along. We really haven’t made a change. . . . We’ve put into chapter and verse in the county code the policy that we’ve been following all along for putting displays up on the courthouse property or any county property anywhere.”

Griesbach was also the judge who in 2008 dismissed the Foundation’s suit as moot against Green Bay, Wis., officials for allowing a creche above an entry to City Hall. FFRF’s federal challenge successfully forced Green Bay to rescind its action.

In his Manitowoc decision, Griesbach said the county “may come to regret its solution to the problem,” citing the experience of Cranston, R.I. Cranston designated its City Hall lawn as a forum for holiday-themed and seasonal decorations, and “was treated to not only a large menorah accompanied by a sign conveying wishes for ‘a Happy Chanukah’ and a near-life-size nativity scene, but also an inflatable 7-foot-tall snowman and a similarly sized Santa Claus; a huge holographic angel; a train of 15 pink flamingos with Santa Claus hats; and a sign that read ‘Happy Holidays from the Teamsters Union.’ Faced with this embarrassment of riches, the City determined . . . that the south lawn could contain nothing more and barred further entries.”

Manitowoc County may also find itself “deluged with applications seeking to enrich the holiday season with similar displays,” Griesbach wrote.

Gaylor congratulated Rebecca Market, FFRF staff attorney, who brought the challenge. It was her first federal case.

Freedom From Religion Foundation