Wisconsin atheists, New York Satanists sue Indiana county for free speech access

by Will Hall, |

BROOKVILLE, Ind. (Christian Examiner) – The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against Franklin County, Indiana, for preventing non-citizens from using county land to erect billboards, signs and other displays.

The group which claims 349 members among Indiana's population of 6.6 million—and two among 23,000 Franklin County residents—took legal action because a county ordinance says free speech displays on county property are reserved for county tax payers. FFRF is joined in the lawsuit by the New York City-based Satanic Temple—both sought to set up displays during the Christmas season to counter a nativity scene that was allowed to be placed on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn.

The groups previously filed a lawsuit to prevent the nativity scene display sponsored by a local citizens group, Aroma's Breakfast Club.

The county approved guidance about the matter in January, allowing "all county citizens" to obtain a permit to use the courthouse lawn for public displays, demonstrations, festivals and even family picnics.

Tom Wilson, president of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, said the ordinance "protects and promotes the free speech rights of Franklin County citizens on their courthouse lawn."

But that irks the FFRF and Satanic Temple whose latest lawsuit claims prohibition of their displays "solely because they are not residents of the county ... violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," according to the petition submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

In the original lawsuit, the FFRF named Steve Kristoff and Renana Gross as county residents "who regularly pass by the nativity scene when it is displayed each year, and who object to its display," the federal complaint reads. "They also pay taxes to the County and object to the use of their taxes for purposes of the display. As a result of the actions or inactions of the defendant, the plaintiffs are suffering irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law."

County commissioners already have approved applications from the Aroma's Breakfast Club for a nativity scene and from Steve Kristoff for an atheist display on the courthouse lawn during the 2015 Christmas holiday.