Ind. Commission Refuses to Bow to Legal Threats Over Nativity Scene

An Indiana commissioner remains resolute about a nativity display remaining in front of a Franklin County Courthouse despite complaints by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Franklin County Commissioner Tom Wilson said he will not take down the 50-year-old manger scene on the courthouse lawn until a court orders him to do so.

The life-size nativity scene is owned by the town of Brookville and was arranged around the flagpole by local firefighters. Last month, the FFRF, a Wisconsin-based free-thinking group, demanded that the scene be removed from government property.

In the three-page letter, Staff Attorney Rebecca Market stated that the religious scene is not accompanied by a secular holiday display. She argued that displaying only the nativity at the court house is "unlawful."

"It is unlawful for a government body to maintain, erect or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing religion," the letter reads.

The courthouse also has a Santa-themed display featuring lit reindeers. However, Market complained that the display is "significantly left" of the nativity and separated by a tree.

She asked that creche be moved to private property, citing "there are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed."

Wilson told the Palladium Item news that letters alone will not force him to budge on the issue. "I'm not going to take it down until a judge hands me an order, and then I might," asserted Wilson.

The county has also mobilized to protect the display. About 500 people rallied last weekend on the courthouse square in support of the nativity scene. Petitions with several thousand signatures in favor of the nativity display have been given to the county government, and the county is currently seeking the advice of their county attorney, Michael Wilhelm, Wilson said.

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, says a legal challenge is not a realistic threat. "[The reindeer display] does not have to be in the midst of [the nativity] as long as it is in the general vicinity," he stated.

In any case, if FFRC were to pursue a legal case, all county officials have to do is move the displays closer together, not remove it, as Markets insists.

"The Freedom from Religious Foundation is a very anti-Christian organization," Staver divulged. "They often distort the facts and distort the law to achieve their agenda."

Their agenda, Staver revealed, is to literally remove Christianity from the public square.

The FFRF sued a Wisconsin county two years ago over winter religious symbols. As a result, there is nothing displayed there today.

Market contended in her letter that government displays "endorsing" religion "strikes a blow to religious liberty."

However, according a Pew Research Center poll, most Americans welcome such displays. According to a 2005 survey, 83 percent of Americans said displays of Christmas symbols should be allowed on government property. Christmas displays were described as nativity scenes, Hanukkah menorahs and other religious holiday symbols.

In a similar 2005 survey, 74 percent of Americans said they believe it is proper to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings – another hotly contested issue.

In light of this information, Staver encourages the county to amend their display rather than take it down. So it has. The town recently added a Christmas tree to the display, which should sufficiently satisfy legal requirements.

Still, the county has not officially responded to FFRF. Market chastised Franklin County in a statement posted on its website Wednesday saying, "We expect the county to take immediate action to bring the display into conformity with constitutional dictates prior to the end of the holiday season."

No legal challenges have been announced as of yet.

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