Satanic Temple at it Again: Brookville Feels the Heat After County Commissioners Deny Temple Display and Display Commemorating the Bill of Rights

Spring flowers and the final week of argument in the Supreme Court’s 2015 term have all of us at RLUIPA Defense thinking spring. However, at least one controversy from the 2014 holiday season is back in bloom (reported on previously here, “Tis The Season for Nativity Scenes & Satanic Displays: Happy Holidays from RLUIPA Defense”). The Freedom from Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) and The United Federation of Churches LLC (d/b/a The Satanic Temple) (“TST”) have filed another federal lawsuit against Franklin County, Indiana challenging the public use of the County courthouse lawn. Late last year, FFRF and two FFRF members filed suit (currently pending under Case No. 1:14-cv-2047-TWP-DML (S.D. Ind.)) alleging that the life-size nativity scene, which had been displayed on the courthouse lawn every Christmas season for approximately fifty years, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In this case, TST joined with FFRF to challenge County Ordinance 2015-02, regulating the use of the courthouse lawn by persons seeking to erect public displays. According to the purpose statement of Ordinance 2015-02, “[i]t is the county’s policy to provide all county citizens with equal access to the courthouse grounds.”

In mid-February 2015, FFRF submitted a permit application to erect a display on the courthouse lawn “consist[ing] of several cut-out figures celebrating the December 15th nativity of the Bill of Rights.” FFRR explained its desire to have its display on the courthouse lawn from November 29, 2015 through January 6, 2016: “the County has violated the Establishment Clause for decades, and it wishes to present a countervailing message to the nativity scene observed by County residents and visitors for half a century.”

TST, which describes itself as “an organized religion that encourages benevolence and empathy among all people while embracing practical common sense and justice,” also applied to the County to erect a display on the courthouse lawn for the same November to December period. The display would consist of “an artistic three-dimensional sculpture mounted on a wooden platform….” TST’s motivation for its display is to publically express its religious beliefs in an effort to obtain more adherents by familiarizing them with TST’s message.

Each application was considered by the County’s Board of Commissioners at its March 2, 2015 meeting. According to the complaint, the Board denied both applications because “neither FFRF nor TST is a resident of the County.” Based on the denials, FFRF and TST claim that the permit denial and the county-resident requirement violate the Establishment Clause. A copy of the complaint and Ordinance 2015-02 are available here and here.

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