Woodring v. Jackson County, No. 20-1881 (7th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Each holiday season, Jackson County, Indiana has a lighted Christmas display on the lawn of its historic courthouse. The display comprises a nativity scene, Santa Claus in his sleigh, a reindeer, carolers, and large candy-striped poles. The display has gone up each year since 2003 when the Ministerial Association purchased it; the secular Lion’s Club maintains and installs it. The County supplies electricity for the display. There is evidence that the courthouse had similar displays before 2003. Woodring, a Jackson County resident, sued, arguing that the nativity scene violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The district court permanently enjoined the County from displaying the nativity scene in its current arrangement.
The Seventh Circuit reversed. Woodring has standing to sue, but the nativity scene complies with the Establishment Clause. The district court applied the “purpose” and “endorsement” tests that grew out of the Supreme Court’s 1971 "Lemon" decision but the Court’s 2019 "American Legion" decision requires the use of a different, more historical framework. The nativity scene fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas—a public holiday. A governmental practice with historical support may be unconstitutional if it is intolerant or discriminatory toward differing views but Woodring supplied no good reason why the County’s nativity scene does not fit within the historical tradition outlined in Lynch.