FFRF sues over government nativity, denial of equal treatment in Franklin Co., Ind. (December 17, 2015)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 16, 2014, against Franklin County, Ind., which annually placed a prominent nativity display in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville. The devotional tableau was erected shortly after Thanksgiving each year and stayed up until early to mid-January. The case, No. 1:14-cv-02047-TWP-DML, was heard by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. In addition to FFRF, two Franklin County residents were local plaintiffs in the suit.

Shortly after FFRF initiated its lawsuit, Franklin County adopted a new policy to issue permits to local residents so they could erect displays on the courthouse lawn. This effectively turned the courthouse lawn into a public forum, which can be a legal solution if administered in a nondiscriminatory way. Due to the new policy, FFRF filed a notice with the court voluntarily withdrawing its challenge to the continued display of the nativity scene.

Under the county’s new policy, FFRF applied for a space on the courthouse lawn, as did the Satanic Temple. The county denied both applications, and FFRF filed suit again, this time with the Satanic Temple, on March 24, 2015. The case, No. 1:15-cv-00484-SEB-DKL, also filed in the Southern District of Indiana, was assigned to Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a Reagan appointee. The county subsequently approved FFRF and the Satanic Temple’s applications and the parties settled the case. In both cases FFRF was represented by Senior Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Rebecca Markert acted as co-counsel.

In October 2016, Franklin County adopted a new ordinance, closing the forum on its courthouse lawn, which effectively prevents any private religious or nonreligious displays in the future. FFRF is pleased with this result, which makes the lawn a welcoming, religiously neutral area for all citizens. It is, in fact, the result that FFRF has advocated for since it first contacted the County in 2010.

First Case

Second Case

Freedom From Religion Foundation