12.18.2008

Freedom From Religion Sues Manitowoc County

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued my home county of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, alleging a traditional nativity scene on the courthouse property violates the Establishment Clause.

The creche has been erected annually on the courthouse square by local Roman Catholic organizations since 1946.  One group that helps make the display possible is a Knights of Columbus council, so I wonder if the national organization's finances and legal support will be drawn into the fight.

I have one more exam tomorrow, so I won't comment on the matter at length at this point.

However, a few quick, off-the-cuff observations:  

I think it's cowardly for the Manitowoc County members of FFRF to refrain from being named plaintiffs in the suit.  I also question whether they have been harmed in any way until they have sought and been denied a chance to place a display indicating their particular beliefs or lack thereof on the site (see the collection of holiday/winter displays at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the rotunda each year).  Also, the complaint seems internally inconsistent, to some extent, as it first decries the lack of a policy about use of the site for religious displays and then proceeds to decry the dreadful policy of official approval later in the complaint.  I am surprised that county officials didn't have some better scheme set up to handle a possible legal action based on the creche given a boatload of similar legally problematic scenarios out there (or maybe they do?).  Finally, the lead case law cited in the complaint references a creche displayed inside a courthouse, not outside on the grounds of a courthouse, so I think that distinction might be important in any legal assessment under the First Amendment.

In addition, as far as context, I know from personal experience that there are a number of permanent monuments on the courthouse grounds, including a large stone monument to the Salomon Brothers.  However, I can't recall the specific amount of religiosity or many other details about the monuments.

Here's a view of the courthouse and grounds from the LIB archives.