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County residents seek return of Nativity scene to courthouse lawn

By The Associated Press
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 stance.

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 years?"

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 weeks.

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 religion.

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 Indiana.

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 complaints.

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 and reindeer.

Otherwise, a local government body must open its grounds to everyone.

"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."


Appellate panel OKs N.J. city's modified holiday display

Judges overturn ban on government-sponsored celebration of winter holidays. 02.19.99

Public officials take opposite paths in dealing with religious holiday displays

Ohio city bars Nativity scene from public park; Virginia County officials allow crèche on public lawn outside government building. 12.10.99

Anti-religious group challenges Denver's holiday display
Church-state separationists accuse city, county officials of promoting Christianity. 12.15.99

Civil rights group asks judge to pull plug on N.J. town's holiday display
Lawyers for Wall defend display saying it includes secular items such as candy canes, Christmas trees. 12.22.99

Court: Atheists can't place sign in Denver's Nativity scene
Federal judge says case has nothing to do with free speech or the establishment clause. 12.27.99

Massachusetts town officials, critics skirmish over Nativity scene on Battle Green
Backers of crèche tell federal judge that new rules violate their speech, religion rights; Lexington officials say ban applies to all displays. 11.30.00

Federal judge backs town's move to ban Nativity scene from Battle Green
Crèche supporters accuse Lexington, Mass., officials of targeting Christians' free-speech rights, say they'll keep up fight. 12.07.00

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