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Woodring v. Jackson County

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

September 30, 2019

REBECCA WOODRING, Plaintiff,
v.
JACKSON COUNTY, INDIANA, Defendant.

          ENTRY DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Jackson County, Indiana’s (“Jackson County”) Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted. (Filing No. 14.) Plaintiff Rebecca Woodring (“Woodring”) is a resident of Jackson County, Indiana. Her Complaint alleges that a nativity scene has been placed on the Jackson County Courthouse front lawn every December for many years in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. She asks the Court to issue a permanent injunction prohibiting Jackson County from displaying the nativity scene at the Courthouse. (Filing No. 1.) For the following reasons, Jackson County’s Motion to Dismiss is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are not necessarily objectively true, but as required when reviewing a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draws all inferences in favor of Woodring as the non-movant. See Bielanski v. County of Kane, 550 F.3d 632, 633 (7th Cir. 2008).

         The Jackson County Courthouse (the “Courthouse”) faces the main street in the town of Brownstown, Indiana. (Filing No. 1 at 1.) The Courthouse contains government offices and is surrounded by a large lawn with a sidewalk that leads to the Courthouse entrance. Id. at 2. Other than a flag pole, the lawn is usually bare during most of the year. Id.

         However, for many years in the month of December, Jackson County has allowed a nativity scene to be placed on the lawn.[1] Id. at 1-2. The current version of the nativity scene shows the figures of the nativity “outlined in white lights that are illuminated during the day and evening hours.” Id. at 2. There is a manger with the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Id. at 2-3. Close to the manger are two angels with upstretched horns announcing the birth, and on either side of the sidewalk leading to the Courthouse are Magi bearing gifts with animals. Id. at 3. This crèche tells the story of the birth of Jesus as outlined in the New Testament, and thus is one of the preeminent symbols of Christianity. Id.

         In 2018, Jackson County received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation complaining about the nativity display. Id. In response, it placed a figure of Santa Claus and figures of carolers to the far side of the display, away from the sidewalk where the crèche is located. Id. Woodring asserts that these secular symbols are far enough away from the nativity scene that they are not part of the display, and even if they were part of the display, it would appear that Santa Claus and a band of carolers are praising the birth of the baby Jesus. Id. Attached to Woodring’s Complaint is a photograph of the nativity scene and the secular figures on the Courthouse lawn as they were arranged in December 2018. (Filing No. 1-1.)

         Woodring resides in Jackson County. (Filing No. 1 at 3.) She travels multiple times per week to Brownstown where she passes the Courthouse on Main Street. Id. at 4. She objects to the nativity scene display because she believes the Jackson County government is endorsing religious faith.

         In December 2018, Woodring filed her Complaint in this Court requesting a permanent injunction “prohibiting the defendant from displaying the crèche and Nativity scene on the lawn of the Jackson County Courthouse.” Id. at 4. She also asks the Court to award her costs and attorneys’ fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Id. Jackson County moved to dismiss on February 25, 2019 pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a defendant to move to dismiss a complaint that has failed to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draws all inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Bielanski, 550 F.3d at 633. However, courts “are not obliged to accept as true legal conclusions or unsupported conclusions of fact.” Hickey v. O’Bannon, 287 F.3d 656, 658 (7th Cir. 2002).

         The complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the United States Supreme Court explained that the complaint must allege facts that are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Although “detailed factual allegations” are not required, mere “labels, ” “conclusions, ” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Id.; see also Bissessur v. Ind. Univ. Bd. of Trs., 581 F.3d 599, 603 (7th Cir. 2009) (“it is not enough to give a threadbare recitation of the elements of a claim without factual support”). The allegations must “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Stated differently, the complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Hecker v. Deere & Co., 556 F.3d 575, 580 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation and quotation marks omitted). To be facially plausible, the complaint must allow “the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Jackson County makes one argument in support of its Motion to Dismiss. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit does not prohibit government displays that include both secular and non-secular elements. (Filing No. 15 at 13.) Woodring admits that the display contains representations of Santa Claus and Christmas carolers as well as a nativity scene. (Filing No. 1 at 3.) Jackson County argues this ...


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