Every Christmas season over the past half-century, a group of volunteers has erected an elaborate, life-sized Nativity display outside the Franklin County Courthouse in Indiana. Now, the Satanic Temple and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are suing the county after it denied them permission to place two companion displays on the lawn, alongside that traditional depiction of Jesus’s birth, next December.
At issue, the lawsuit says, is a new county ordinance that restricts permits for displays and activities on the lawn to county residents. The ordinance, the groups allege, violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Indiana late last month. It is the latest of several challenges to local ordinances governing religious speech on public lands. The challenges targeting municipal Nativity scenes in particular are so plentiful that they’ve become something of an annual tradition themselves.
Earlier this year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was denied permission to display “several cut-out figures celebrating the December 15th nativity of the Bill of Rights” on the lawn between late November and January. The county also rejected the Satanic Temple’s request to display “an artistic three-dimensional sculpture mounted on a wooden platform” on the lawn for the same period of time, the suit says. Both groups applied in February, one month after the county passed an ordinance regulating use of the lawn.
Although the applications were rejected because of the ordinance’s residency requirement — and not because of the content of the proposed displays — Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner, who goes by Lucien Greaves when speaking for the group, said the residency restriction was itself an unacceptable limitation.
“Our joint lawsuit with the FFRF is our response to this arbitrary limitation,” Mesner said in an e-mail. “I suspect that the arbitrary restriction of local standing is merely but an effort at keeping varying viewpoints to a minimum.”
The ordinance itself was a response to an earlier lawsuit challenging the county’s Nativity display, brought by two county residents who are members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The earlier suit accused Franklin County officials of effectively endorsing Christianity over other religions by placing the Nativity display on the lawn every holiday season, the Indianapolis Star reported in December.
The January ordinance allows for public use of the courthouse grounds as a “forum to promote understanding of issues of public concern and to foster respect for the rights of all individuals.”
Among accepted uses of the space: county-sponsored activities, displays, demonstrations, exhibits, marches, press conferences, memorial services, weddings and “other expressive activities.” The ordinance says permit decisions will “be made on a nondiscriminatory basis” and allows for any county resident to apply for a permit between 11 months and four weeks before the proposed date that the space will be used.
The new lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that neither organization is a resident of Franklin County. But the lawsuit alleges that geographic location shouldn’t matter, because both groups still “wish to express themselves by erecting displays on the Courthouse lawn.” The groups are represented by the ACLU.
“FFRF wishes to erect this display on the Courthouse lawn in order to highlight what it believes to be the paramount importance of the Bill of Rights and to otherwise express itself,” the lawsuit says. The foundation also intends the display to be a “countervailing message to the nativity scene,” as the group has long argued that the scene violates the constitution’s Establishment Clause.
“Additionally, FFRF is aware that it has members who reside in the County and also has members that visit the County. It would also like to erect its display to support these persons and to make sure that their secular beliefs are adequately represented,” the lawsuit continues.
Likewise, the Satanic Temple also believes it has a constitutional right to place a display on the lawn. The group describes itself in the suit as “an organized religion that encourages benevolence and empathy among all people while embracing practical common sense and justice” and says its function is “to provide outreach, to lead by example, and to participate in public affairs wherever issues might benefit from rational, Satanic insights.”
The display, the group says, is an expression of its religious beliefs, an opportunity to familiarize others with its beliefs, and to ” obtain more adherents.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Satanic Temple have in the past made challenges to rules governing religious speech in the public square, including ordinances pertaining to holiday displays in other states.
In Florida last year, the Satanic Temple successfully erected a diorama depicting an angel falling towards (and later, standing in) a pit of flames on the state capitol rotunda, alongside a Nativity scene and multiple atheist displays. The Temple’s request to participate in the display festivities had been rejected as “grossly offensive” for the 2013 season.
Although many town Nativity displays are sponsored by private groups and not taxpayer funded, their presence on public land has led some separation of church and state advocates to argue that the displays function as a government endorsement of Christianity, unless displays representing other belief systems are allowed as well.
Some challenged public spaces — the Florida capitol rotunda, for instance — have opted to allow for any group willing to foot the bill to apply for space to erect their own holiday displays. In past years, the Florida nativity scene has been joined by a “Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster” and a “Festivus” pole.
Reaction to the cornucopia of holiday messages there has been mixed. Pam Olsen, a Christian who organized last year’s Nativity display in Florida, told the Associated Press that she did not like the Satanic Temple’s diorama, but that “free speech is free speech whether we like it or not.” By contrast, a Florida woman was arrested after she showed up at the rotunda wearing a T-shirt that read “Catholic Warrior” and attempted to destroy the Satanic Temple’s diorama.
In a recent Pew poll, a plurality of Americans — 44 percent — said that they believe the government should allow Christian symbols and displays on public property whether or not it allows the same for non-Christian symbols.
But many respondents to the same poll also expressed some reservations about those displays: 28 percent said that Christian symbols in a public space must be accompanied by those of other faiths, while another 20 percent don’t think that any religious symbols — Christian or not — should be allowed on government property.
The Satanic Temple also placed a competing display alongside a Nativity scene in Michigan last Christmas.
In an earlier interview with The Post, Mesner said he expects even more challenges to local Nativity displays in the future. “I suspect that next year will find a Satanic holiday display next to most every Nativity on government land,” he said.