- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Nativity scene displayed each December for half a century outside an eastern Indiana courthouse.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued Franklin County in December on behalf of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, arguing the privately owned Nativity scene violates the First Amendment because it “represents an endorsement of religion and has the principal effect of advancing religion.”

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled Wednesday that there’s no proof of a constitutional violation and said any alleged misconduct was corrected when Franklin County officials enacted an ordinance regulating use of the courthouse lawn weeks after the suit was filed, The Indianapolis Star reported (https://indy.st/1jiDbWa ).

ACLU of Indiana attorney Gavin Rose he’s disappointed with the ruling and is reviewing it with its clients to decide “what the next steps, if any, are.”

“The case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds and there was no ruling on whether the county acted constitutionally,” Rose said in a statement.



The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm representing Franklin County, called the ruling a victory for religious liberty.

“The decision reaffirms the right of private citizens to exercise their religious faith in the public square,” Peter Breen, the group’s special counsel, said in a statement.

The Nativity scene has been erected late each year for at least the past five decades on the lawn outside the courthouse in Brooksville, about 70 miles southeast of Indianapolis. It includes life-size figurines of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the three wise men.

Franklin County officials removed the Nativity scene shortly after the lawsuit was filed in December. And in January, they enacted an ordinance stating that the courthouse lawn could be used by county residents for a wide range of events, including demonstrations, rallies, exhibits and wedding ceremonies. The ordinance also created an approval process that determines which displays can be erected.

Franklin County faces a similar lawsuit also filed by the ACLU of Indiana on behalf of a Massachusetts-based group called The Satanic Temple. That suit alleges county officials violated the Constitution by not allowing certain groups to erect their own displays outside the courthouse.

That lawsuit still is pending, but court records indicate the parties are working toward a settlement.

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

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