Each holiday season, an Indiana county allows private groups to set up a lighted Christmas display on the front lawn of its historic courthouse, typically consisting of a nativity scene, Santa Claus in his sleigh, reindeer, carolers and large candy-striped poles. Woodring, a county resident, sued the county to take down the nativity scene, arguing that the nativity scene violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it conveyed the county’s endorsement of a religious message. In response, the county agued that the nativity scene was part of its secular celebration of a public holiday. The district court sided with Woodring and held that the county may not display the nativity scene in its current arrangement. The county appealed.

In Woodring v. Jackson County, Ind, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and held that the county’s use of the nativity scene in a Christmas display did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In rejecting Woodring’s claims that the nativity scene was a “government endorsement” of a religious message, the court reasoned that the display was linked to a longstanding tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to “depict the historical origins of Christmas.” The court noted that the county’s nativity scene is part of a larger Christmas display that contains various other symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus, a reindeer, four carolers, and seven prominent candy-striped poles. Because the display consisted of both religious and nonreligious symbols of Christmas, the court found that the nativity scene was used in a broader context to depict the historical origins of the National Holiday. As a result, the court held that the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Post authored by Rain Montero and Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink