While pleased that a live nativity pageant in an Indiana public school has stopped for now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation expressed disappointment over a federal ruling today saying a school may employ mannequins in a Christian manger scene during a Christmas celebration.
U.S. District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio for the Northern District of Indiana, issued the 37-page ruling in a case brought by FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union with parent and student plaintiffs. The federal suit challenged a live student tableau of students as part of Concord Community Schools' annual "Christmas Spectacular."
The ACLU and FFRF won a preliminary injunction Dec. 2 against the live nativity. The nearly 50-year violation involved students reenacting the supposed birth of the Christian savior, as school officials read passages from the New Testament and devotional Christmas hymns dominated the musical program.
The district responded to the lawsuit by adding one Chanukah song and one Kwanzaa song to its program. After the preliminary injunction, it replaced the student actors in its nativity scene with mannequins, but kept the usual 20 minutes of devotional Christmas songs performed by students during four public concerts.
The decision today held that the 2015 change from a live nativity enactment to a static nativity display did not violate the Establishment Clause. The ruling left untouched the court's earlier decision enjoining the live nativity.
The Court's ruling was predicated on what it saw as significant changes to the school district's program, brought on by the litigation. The judge called the changes sufficient to avoid any constitutional problem with the 2015 concert.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, to the contrary, that in fact the unannounced inclusion of a manger scene was a disturbing shock and offense to the plaintiffs observing the concerts.
FFRF and the ACLU note that staging a nativity scene, live or otherwise, during a school event has no secular or educational purpose. "The nativity scene and the concert's heavy focus on the religious aspects of Christmas send an exclusionary message to our clients and others that the school prefers Christians over non-theists and people of other faiths," noted ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Heather Weaver.
The case is still ongoing. Judge DeGuilio has asked the parties to submit supplemental briefing on how to remedy the violations to plaintiffs' rights occurring in 2014 and earlier. Those issues should be fully briefed by the end of October.
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs, who are under a protective order, for their willingness to challenge this longstanding violation despite community uproar and threats delivered against anyone perceived to be involved in the case.