“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Seventh Circuit judge Amy St. Eve wrote a 2-1 decision that reversed a district court and approved a county-authorized Christmas nativity scene display at a courthouse, even though the district judge had found that the display had a religious purpose and communicated a message of government endorsement of religion. The February 2021 decision was in Woodring v Jackson County.
A “historic courthouse” that now houses busy county offices “sits on Main Street” in the county seat of Jackson County, Indiana. In 2003, the local ministerial association purchased an elaborate nativity scene accompanied by a Santa Claus figure and other Christmas decorations, and the county agreed that the display could be erected on the courthouse lawn from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. This has continued every year since then, with the county supplying electricity. A lawsuit was filed in 2018 challenging the display as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After evidence and legal briefs from the parties, a federal district court found that the county’s actions had a religious purpose and had the effect of communicating the county’s endorsement of religion. Based on the analysis in a 2018 7th Circuit decision, the judge ruled that the display thus violated the Establishment Clause.
On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, Trump judge St. Eve wrote a 2-1 decision reversing the district court. She maintained that the court’s own previous standards for considering such cases, in which the government’s purpose and the extent to which the government’s actions appear to endorse religion are important factors, have been “undermined” if not overruled by the Supreme Court’s recent decision permitting a long-established large cross to remain on public property in the American Legion case. St. Eve did not disagree with the district court’s findings on purpose and endorsement, but ruled that after American Legion, these factors “no longer” provide the “appropriate framework” for analyzing such cases, and effectively overruled or “decline[d] to follow” previous Seventh Circuit cases that held otherwise.
St, Eve went on to maintain that even though the Jackson County display was not “longstanding” as in cases like American Legion, it should be upheld under the Establishment Clause. St. Eve wrote that according to the “historical approach” taken in that and some other Supreme Court cases, the display is constitutional because it “fits within a long national tradition” of using nativity scenes in “broader” displays to depict the “historical origins of Christmas,” which is “recognized as a National Holiday.” The fact that “some people in the community” believe it has “religious significance,” St. Eve stated, was not relevant to this analysis.
Judge David Hamilton strongly dissented. He agreed with the district court’s conclusion on the message conveyed by the display in its context, explaining that it “sends a strong message of government endorsement of Christianity.” He explained that St. Eve “reads far too much” into American Legion and that it “did not overrule” the endorsement or purpose standards in considering “government-sponsored holiday displays.” The “better reading,” Hamilton went on, was that the Court majority “displaced” the endorsement and intent standards only in the narrow category of cases “dealing with longstanding” historical displays as in that case, and did not overrule “broad swaths of Supreme Court precedent by implication.” In short, Hamilton wrote, St. Eve’s opinion “departs from controlling Supreme Court precedent that the Supreme Court itself has left intact,” and the district court’s decision should have been affirmed.
Trump judge St. Eve’s opinion does much more than simply allow Jackson County’s nativity scene to continue to be displayed. As Judge Hamilton warned, the decision “will be read as inviting many new challenges to Establishment Clause precedents” that protect true religious freedom for all in America. There is ample reason for serious concern about how Trump judges and justices will attempt to rule in such cases.