Seventh Circuit Rules Nativity Scene Can Be Placed on Courthouse Grounds

A nativity scene displayed outside of an Indiana courthouse has secular significance, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

A Christmas nativity scene. (Photo via Vincent Ciro/Pixabay)

CHICAGO (CN) — A split Seventh Circuit panel ruled that a holiday nativity scene displayed on the grounds of a county courthouse does not violate the Constitution.

The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 on Tuesday that Indiana resident Rebecca Woodring did have standing to challenge the nativity scene that is displayed on the grounds of the Jackson County Courthouse during the Christmas season, but the holiday display itself is not unconstitutional.

“We conclude that the County’s nativity scene is constitutional because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas — a public holiday,” U.S. Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve, a Trump appointee, wrote for the majority.

The decision was hailed by the religious rights organization Liberty Counsel, which represented the county in the case.

“This is a great victory that affirms that the Jackson County holiday display does not violate the First Amendment. The Supreme Court and many federal courts have ruled such displays are constitutional, especially when the display includes other secular symbols of the holiday, and this display in Jackson County is no exception,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said. 

The lawsuit was filed in December 2018 by the Indiana ACLU on behalf of Woodring. It argued that the Jackson County courthouse was endorsing a religion because the nativity scene, also known as a crèche, depicts symbols of Christianity.

“The addition of Santa and the carolers does not in any way minimize the religiosity of the display as they are not integrated in any way into the display and are far removed from the crèche and would not be viewed as part of the display,” the lawsuit stated.

In April of 2020, U.S. District Judge Tanya Pratt, an Obama appointee, ruled in favor of Woodring, finding that the nativity scene was displayed for religious reasons.

St. Eve found that the lower court had applied the improper precedent and said the 2019 case American Legion v. American Humanist Association is now the prevailing framework for such cases.

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a World War I monument in the shape of a cross could remain, because the object had taken on secular significance outside its religious connotations. 

The majority opinion Tuesday did not fully embrace that ruling but found parts of it applicable to the current case, finding that the nativity scene included secular symbols and that it had also taken on a greater meaning.

“The County’s nativity scene is part of a larger Christmas display that contains various other symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus in his sleigh, a reindeer, four carolers standing in front of a lamp post, and seven prominent candy-striped poles,” St. Eve wrote. “The government’s celebration of Christmas comports with a broader pattern of government recognition of public holidays, Christian and non-Christian alike.”

U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton, an Obama appointee, wrote the dissent and argued that the display had not taken on a secular meaning.

“I disagree with the majority’s result because of the specific facts: the religious content dominates the county’s Christmas display here,” Hamilton wrote in his dissent. “Viewed in its entirety and in context, the display therefore sends a strong message of government endorsement of Christianity.”

Hamilton also argued that this case and any future cases that are similar should be judged on the facts of each individual case, not on legal theories.

“There is not a sharp line. It’s not as simple as counting whether there are more shepherds and angels than elves and snowmen,” Hamilton wrote. “But the broad principle against government endorsement of particular religions provides a workable standard. If the display is dominated by religious symbolism, with only minor or to-ken secular symbols and symbols of other faiths, the message of endorsement calls for court intervention.

The ACLU did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood, a Clinton appointee, also presided on the panel. 

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