Lawsuit filed by Satanic Temple in dispute over Brookville Nativity display

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By Kristine Guerra, IndyStar

BROOKVILLE, Ind. (April 6, 2015)– A small Indiana county is facing another lawsuit that centers on who can and cannot place public displays outside its courthouse, according to our partners at the Indianapolis Star.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a second lawsuit against Franklin County, alleging its officials violated the Constitution by not allowing certain groups to erect their own displays outside the county courthouse. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and a group that calls itself The Satanic Temple, based in Massachusetts.

Franklin County already is facing a related lawsuit challenging the residents’ 50-year-old practice of placing a Nativity scene outside the courthouse. That suit, filed in December by the ACLU of Indiana in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, says the Nativity scene is a First Amendment violation that shows the county endorses Christianity over other religions.

In response to that lawsuit, also filed on behalf of Freedom From Religion Foundation, the county in January passed an ordinance regulating the use of the courthouse lawn in Brookville, a small town about 80 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The lawn can be used for activities sponsored by the county, celebrations, community events and activities, displays, exhibits, rallies, press conferences, wedding ceremonies and other public uses, according to the ordinance.

In February, Freedom From Religion Foundation and The Satanic Temple each applied for a permit to erect displays outside the courthouse. Those applications were denied because neither organizations were based in Franklin County. The ordinance allows only residents to put up displays.

The foundation, according to court documents, wanted to erect a display of several cut-out figures celebrating the Dec. 15 ratification of the Bill of Rights. The group wants its display to remain on the courthouse from late 2015 to early 2016. The Satanic Temple, court records say, wanted to erect a three-dimensional sculpture.

The two groups then filed a federal lawsuit on March 24, alleging that denial of the applications amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Tom Wilson, of the Franklin County Commissioners, has not responded to a call seeking comment. Court records do not yet show an attorney representing Franklin County in this lawsuit.

Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., that advocates for the separation of church and state. In recent years, the group had sent letters to the Franklin County Commissioners expressing concerns about the Nativity display, which was put up annually and paid for by a group of volunteers.

The Satanic Temple, also called The United Federation of Churches LLC, is an international religious organization based in Somerville, Mass. The group’s local chapters in other states caused some controversy late last year.

In December, its chapter in Florida put up a display depicting an angel suspended over a fire at the state capitol, according to The Washington Post. The display, according to a report by The Tallahassee Democrat, was a response to Nativity scenes that have been displayed at the state’s capitol. The same month, Satanic Temple supporters erected a display featuring the snake from the Garden of Eden sitting in front of a pentagram at the Michigan state capitol.

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