|Jack Ruckel stands with his portable Nativity scene on
Dec. 20, 1999, in Lafayette, Ind.
LAFAYETTE, Ind. Jack Ruckel plans to build a Christmas
Nativity scene in the bed of his pickup truck and park it in front of the
Tippecanoe County Courthouse.
But that may be as close as the 63-year-old retiree gets to
celebrating the season on government property.
After allowing a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn every Christmas
for nearly 30 years, the county banned such displays last year.
Last week, a group of about two dozen residents, including Ruckel,
submitted a petition to county commissioners, asking them to change their
The group, which collected nearly 500 signatures on the petition, also
is considering a discrimination suit against the county.
"It's disgusting when they holler about church and state," Ruckel
said. "Are they saying we've been doing something wrong (in America) for 200
The Lafayette clash is the latest Indiana battle over the separation
of church and state, and the second to come to the fore statewide in recent
On Nov. 17, workers removed
a Ten Commandments monument the same one banned from the Statehouse
lawn in July from the lawn of the Lawrence County Courthouse.
That was by order of U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker, who ruled
that the display violated the First Amendment by appearing to endorse a
People like Annie Fassnacht, leader of the Lafayette petition drive,
believe they are being singled out. They say it's a free-speech issue. "Our
Constitution gives us the right to do that," she said.
This year's disputes are not the first to arise around the holidays in
Last year, a creche on the lawn of an Edinburgh elementary school
prompted the Indiana Civil Liberties Union to complain, but the organization
could not take action because no one came forward to bring a suit. In 1991, the
ICLU considered trying to stop a live Nativity display at a Parker City
elementary school, but it did not have enough time to take legal action.
In Chesterton, the ICLU in 1996 threatened to sue the town over a
Nativity display in a public park, so the town removed it. Instead, organizer
Jeannene Bauer raised nearly $2,000 to build a new, improved creche on an empty
parking lot across from the park.
The confrontations haven't been limited to Christians. In 1993, a
Jewish menorah in the lobby of the city-county building in Indianapolis drew
the ICLU's ire after the organization received more than a dozen
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that some religious displays are
permissible. In 1984, the high court ruled in Lynch
v. Donnelly that a Nativity scene did not violate the
establishment clause if it contained other secular figures such as Santa Claus
Otherwise, a local government body must open its grounds to
"That's the only avenue to doing it constitutionally: Come one, come
all," said John Krull, director of the ICLU. "The problem is that if you're a
government official, you lose the right to say no entirely. So if a Satanist
comes up and says, 'This is my faith,' the government has to say yes (to that
person's display), which I suspect the folks that are pushing for this wouldn't
much care for."
County Commissioner John Knochel believes there is a better solution
a display on private property. So do many of the town's pastors, 30 of
whom signed a letter to the commissioners expressing concern over the tactics
used by Fassnacht's group.
"We're not giving up our convictions. We're just taking a different
approach in sharing our convictions," said Greg Hackett, pastor of the
Lafayette First Assembly of God. "One of the things we're concerned about is
that there seems to be an intimidation factor in the Christian community."