In New Letter, Freedom From Religion Demands Courthouse Nativity Removed

Posted On March 06, 2014

By Mike Perleberg


The Franklin County Courthouse Nativity as it appeared in 2010.
file photo

(Brookville, Ind.) – A Nativity scene display in Brookville is an ongoing source of controversy in the debate over separation of church and state.

The Nativity has been displayed on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn for many years. It largely went unnoticed until 2010.

That year, the Freedom from Religion Foundation was notified of the possible violation by a local resident. The organization wrote a letter to Franklin County Commissioners demanding the display either be removed or have other secular decorations placed around it. For the next couple years, the county complied by placing the secular decorations in the form of Christmas lights around the display.

This past Christmas season, the county displayed the Nativity on its own. The Brookville American-Democrat newspaper reported that the county’s lights had been damaged and it did not purchase new lights to accompany the display. As a result, the Freedom from Religion Foundation – again alerted by a local resident – sent a second letter to county commissioners on December 23.

The courthouse Nativity scene in Brookville as it was displayed this past Christmas season. Photo from Freedom From Religion Foundation

The courthouse Nativity scene in Brookville as it was displayed this past Christmas season.
Photo from Freedom From Religion Foundation

The Wisconsin-based foundation sent the commissioners yet another letter on February 21. Eagle 99.3 has obtained a copy.

“The County’s lack of effort to dampen the overt religious message engendered in the crèche display by adding appropriate secular elements is further evidence of an underlying goal of promoting Christianity. This is an inappropriate message for Franklin County to be sending to its citizens,” the correspondence read.

The foundation’s attorney, Rebecca Markert, who wrote the letter, goes on to single out County Commissioner Tom Wilson for statements he made in the American-Democrat about the county’s right to display the Nativity scene at the courthouse.

Wilson claimed in the newspaper that “What happened to majority rules? This country was founded on Christian values.”

Markert responds by writing that Wilson’s mischaracterization of the basic function of government as being the establishment of majority rules should be alarming to all Franklin County residents. The courthouse Nativity, she wrote, is the “trumpeting” of a majority viewpoint over other ideologies.

“The Bill of Rights places matters of conscience above mob rule. Local government agents, like the Franklin County Commissioners, are tasked not with oppressing minority viewpoints, but with cultivating a harmonious community that welcomes diversity,” Markert stated.

Wilson was also quoted in the American-Democrat: “They have 20,000 members, and we have 350 million members,” referring to the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s popularity compared to Christians.

After pointing out that the United States’ total population is less than 318 million, Markert claimed the statistical reality is that a sizable portion of Franklin County’s residents are nonbelievers. Twenty-eight percent of Indiana residents, she said, are non religious.

“More to the point, the Commission was contacted by FFRF precisely because members of your own community take issue with this Nativity scene being displayed on Franklin County property,” Markert said.

The organization’s letter suggests the Nativity be given to a private party or church to be displayed legally. A written response to the foundation about the actions the county is taking to remedy the “constitutional violation” was also requested.

“The best course of action is to remove all messages of religious endorsement from city property,” the letter concludes.


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