BROOKVILLE, Ind. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that a nativity scene that’s been erected each winter for more than a half-century on a southeastern Indiana county’s courthouse lawn violates the U.S. Constitution.
The suit contends Franklin County’s nativity scene “represents an endorsement of religion and has the principal effect of advancing religion” and therefore violates the First Amendment. The complaint seeks a preliminary injunction preventing the county from displaying the nativity scene.
The display in Brookville, about 65 miles southeast of Indianapolis, contains life-size figurines of the Christ child, Mary and Joseph, the three wise men, at least one angel and several animals comprising a nativity scene the suit calls “a well-recognized symbol of the Christian faith.” At night, the display is lit using electricity paid for by county taxpayers, the suits states.
“Any reasonable person viewing this display would conclude that its principal effect is to advance religion,” ACLU of Indiana senior staff attorney Gavin M. Rose said in a statement.
He added that the First Amendment protects “these kinds of displays by individuals and groups on private property, but also makes clear that displays on public property, which is maintained by taxpayers, cannot demonstrate a preference for religion.”
Tom Wilson, president of the Franklin County commissioners, said they don’t believe the display is unconstitutional and would welcome displays representing other religions as long as they were tasteful.
“We feel the lawsuit violates our constitutional rights, not to be able to put it up, because of freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” Wilson said in a telephone interview.
Wilson told The Indianapolis Star the display was paid for with donations and set up by a group of private citizens who have every right to erect the display on public property.
The ACLU filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis on behalf of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The foundation said in the suit that about 350 of its more than 21,000 U.S. members are Indiana residents. Some of those people live in or around Brookville and “object to the display.”
Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said the nativity scene “places the county government’s stamp of approval behind the Christian religious doctrine.”