Federal Judge Dismisses Franklin Co. Courthouse Nativity Lawsuit
By Mike Perleberg
A lawsuit focusing on the legality of the Nativity scene outside the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville has been dismissed in favor of the county. Photo provided.
(Brookville, Ind.) – A lawsuit focusing on the separation of church and state on Franklin County’s courthouse lawn has been dismissed.
It is the latest chapter in a local story that has made national headlines.
Last December, a member of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, residents Steve Kristoff and Renana Gross, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued Franklin County in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis over the Christian Nativity display at the county courthouse in Brookville. The privately-owned display has been appearing on public property at the courthouse each Christmas season for five decades.
The plaintiffs alleged that the Nativity display on government property was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit prompted Franklin County Commissioners to act this past January. They passed an ordinance creating a formal permitting process with content-neutral guidelines for displays outside the courthouse.
In dismissing the ACLU and FFRF’s lawsuit without on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt cited the county’s new permitting process for courthouse displays in ruling that the FFRF failed to show any continuing constitutional violation by the county.
With the ordinance now in place, “the Court cannot draw a reasonable inference that Franklin County could be liable for any misconduct alleged in FFRF’s Amended Complaint,” Pratt wrote in her ruling.
“Additionally, there is evidence before the Court that the Ordinance is not a ruse as Plaintiff Steve Kristoff has applied for a permit to place a winter solstice display on the lawn in December 2015… and Franklin County reports that the permit has been granted… Because there is no present proof of violation or deprivation, just past allegations, there is no need to vindicate rights,” Pratt continued.
The judge did not award FFRF’s requests that the county pay for injunctive and other relief and legal fees because there is no actual injury and the case is moot.
The non-profit Thomas More Society served as Franklin County’s special legal counsel for the lawsuit. Attorney Peter Breen says the lawsuit dismissal sets a solid precedent for counties and cities to fend off “nuisance lawsuits” by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“This dismissal of FFRF’s lawsuit against the Nativity Scene is a tremendous victory not only for Franklin County but for religious liberty in general,” said Breen. “The decision reaffirms the right of private citizens to exercise their religious faith in the public square.”
Kristoff, the FFRF member who was among the two plaintiffs in the Nativity litigation, is at the center of more controversy in Franklin County. He has approached the town council of Oldenburg, where he lives, questioning the town’s military veterans memorial which includes a cross and a reference to God.