A county in Indiana proposed a new ordinance to allow the display of a private Nativity scene on public property in response to legal challenges by First Amendment right groups.
The ordinance allows county officials to uniformly permit citizens to use the Franklin County Courthouse lawn, a public space, for demonstrations, exhibits and rallies for any activity, regardless of the group setting up the event.
This ordinance comes out of a legal battle between county officials and church-state groups over the courthouse lawn housing a Nativity scene, which depicts the birth of Jesus, during the Christmas season.
A similar scene has been on display on the courthouse lawn since the mid-1950s.
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Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based First Amendment rights group, sued Franklin County over the display because it said the Nativity scene violated the Constitutional right of the separation of church and state.
New provisions in the ordinance include a $25 set-up fee and a $250 refundable deposit. Additionally, the county surveyor divided the lawn into eight separate spots for public use. Each display can be up for no longer than 45 days.
“This new ordinance provides maximum Constitutional protections for the citizens of Franklin County to use their courthouse lawn,” said Peter Breen, a special counsel at Thomas More Society representing the county pro bono.
Representatives at various church-state groups said they think the ordinance may not resolve the issues of the public use of the courthouse lawn.
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Gavin Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana attorney who is representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal suit, said he thinks the law is more complicated than the new ordinance alludes.
“There’s a certain naivety to think this ordinance is enough to get rid of this lawsuit,” Rose told Pal-Item. “Now that we’re past the holiday, there’s no major time pressure."
He added he thinks it is unclear if the ordinance resolves the issues at hand. He said he plans to wait and see its practical application.