FFRF Sues County of Manitowoc

Over Catholic Creche Erected Yearly Since 1946 on Courthouse Grounds

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking the County of Manitowoc, Wis., to court over its provocative and divisive” prominent display every December since 1946 of a nativity scene bearing the words “Glory to God in the Highest” on its courthouse lawn.

The Foundation filed suit representing its Manitowoc County members, but did not name the specific plaintiffs in the legal complaint, due to the great concern and even fear expressed by Foundation members and other complainants about being identified locally at the Christmas season when tensions run so high. The FFRF lawsuit names as defendants Bob Ziegelbauer, as Manitowoc County Executive and Jeffrey Beyer, public works director.

“When the County displays a Nativity scene on the Courthouse grounds, close to the entrance and in a prominent position, it places the imprimatur of the County government behind the Christian religious doctrine, to the exclusion of citizens who are not Christian, such as Jews, Native American practitioners, Muslims, animists, etc., as well as the significant and growing portion of the United States population that is not religious at all,” notes the Foundation legal complaint, filed in federal court today by attorney Richard Bolton, in the eastern district of Wisconsin.

The Foundation had written a letter a year ago warning the county that its display was in violation of the Supreme Court’s two decisions governing nativity scenes on public property. The high court has decisively ruled that crèches may not be on government property as the sole focus of a holiday display, and should not be by core government buildings at all.

The display this year was erected during the last week of November and, according to defendant Ziegelbauer, is expected to stay up until around January 10, 2009.

“The defendants have given perpetual approval to the Manitowoc County Catholic Women’s Club and the Knights of Columbus to display the Nativity scene, despite known public opposition,” notes the complaint.

The complaint notes that Ziegelbauer asserts that the courthouse nativity scene “was a good idea 10 or 20 years ago, and it still is.” Ziegelbauer has been quoted saying those who oppose the display are political outsiders who will “go away” after January.

The Foundation and various regional media were unable to uncover any permit for the display, or approval by the Manitowoc Public Works Committee, or even written guidelines about public displays.

“As a result of the defendants’ phantom regulations governing displays on the Courthouse lawn, preference is given for the displays of political insiders,” continues the complaint. “By contrast, the County’s unspecified and undocumented prior restraint of other displays is subject to discriminatory effect, as reflected by the comments of Norbert Vogt, a Manitowoc County Board Supervisor on the Public Works Committee, who has publicly stated that the County should not allow atheists to put up a sign declaring ‘There is no God.’ “

“According to Supervisor Vogt, ‘everybody’ realizes that there is Supreme Being and therefore it would be unacceptable for the County to allow a sign denying that reality.”

The complaint notes that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment not only limits the religious content of the government’s own communications, but also prohibits the support and promotion of religious communications by religious organizations.

The visibility of the display at a prominent public site provides “a powerful medium of support for the Christian message thereby conveyed,” notes the Foundation complaint.

The Foundation asks for an order enjoining the County from permitting the display on public property.

Case no. 08-C-1105

Freedom From Religion Foundation