Small Indiana county fights for nativity display against a ‘drive-by’ atheist
A small Indiana town is fighting to save its nativity display from a liberal legal onslaught.
In 2018, Rebecca Woodring, a resident of Seymour, complained that she was offended by a nativity scene at the Jackson County courthouse in Brownstown, a town of about 3,000 people about 10 miles from her home. A local group of interdenominational ministers owns the creche, the local business community sponsors it, and the community’s Lions Club helps maintain it, according to media reports. It had appeared during every Christmas season since 2003.
Woodring, an atheist who moved to the area three years ago, sued with the help of the ACLU, saying the government was promoting religion by allowing the display on courthouse grounds. Woodring also maintained that the nativity scene was psychologically damaging because she had to see it when delivering T-shirts to the town as part of her job and to collect child support payments.
A federal judge sided with Woodring and the ACLU in May, saying it violated the First Amendment, and ordered that it be stowed.
The county, represented by the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, is appealing with the help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
In its friend-of-the-court brief, Becket’s lawyers argue that religious practices and symbols are under perpetual assault from largely frivolous lawsuits by the allegedly aggrieved, who are encouraged to take offense by groups like the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Nativity scene, Becket says, “dates back earlier than our Founding. It is thus undoubtedly part of our nation’s history and traditions. Unfortunately, litigation like this — challenging an established local holiday tradition — is common.”
“Throughout Indiana (and across the country), organizations like Freedom From Religion Foundation send threat letters challenging similar holiday displays. In most cases, the plaintiff doesn’t even live in the local community. And worse, the only alleged injury is a feeling of the offense upon viewing the display,” the group’s brief continues.
“This is quite literally ‘drive-by’ standing. Frequently, local governments are bullied into removing displays when out-of-town organizations send letters threatening expensive and contentious litigation, despite widespread local support.”
Of Woodring, Becket maintains, “Her alleged injury boils down to this: while driving through Brownstown, she saw a nativity scene on the historic courthouse lawn and didn’t like it. In no other context is such a vague and ephemeral injury — a mere feeling of offense at government action with which you disagree — sufficient to jump-start federal litigation.”
The group encourages the appellate court to toss Woodring’s lawsuit based on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a nearly century-old World War I memorial in Maryland that is shaped like a cross is acceptable for display on public property.
The next stop for the case is the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
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