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Suit settled that challenged county’s courthouse ordinance

December 21, 2015

BROOKVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a legal dispute focused on a Nativity scene that has been display each winter for decades at a courthouse in southeastern Indiana.

The parties agreed to the lawsuit’s dismissal with the understanding that Franklin County will allow local residents and churches to erect both religious and nonreligious displays outside its courthouse in Brookville. A federal judge in Indianapolis dismissed the case Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had sued the county in March for not allowing certain secular groups to erect displays outside the courthouse, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1MrXiYp ).

The ACLU of Indiana filed its suit on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and The Satanic Temple, a group based in Massachusetts. Both groups applied for a permit to erect their displays outside the courthouse, but their applications were denied because neither group was local.

A county ordinance allows only local residents and groups to erect displays.

However, as part of the settlement, the county agreed to let nonresidents apply for a permit as long as they have a local contact, said Tom Ciesielka, spokesman for the Thomas More Society, which represented Franklin County in the lawsuit.

Under the settlement, both sides have agreed to pay their own legal fees, including attorney’s fees and other expenses, incurred during the case.

Attorneys for the ACLU of Indiana did not return messages seeking comment Monday on the lawsuit’s dismissal.

For more than a half-century, the courthouse lawn has included a Nativity scene featuring life-size figures of a baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the three wise men.

The ACLU of Indiana also sued the county in December 2014 over the display on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That suit, which was dismissed in September by a federal judge, accused county officials of violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by allowing a Christian symbol on public property.

That case was dismissed because of the ordinance, which allowed Franklin County residents to erect their own displays — religious or not — outside the courthouse. The ordinance was enacted a month after the lawsuit was filed.

As a result of the two lawsuits, nonreligious displays, including one showing the Bill of Rights on a manger, will be seen outside the courthouse lawn until January, along with the Nativity scene and other displays.

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

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