There's yet another twist in this public school lawsuit over a live nativity

Posted September 27

An ongoing legal battle over a live nativity scene in a public high school's 2014 Christmas show just took another intriguing turn.

A federal judge ruled that officials at Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana, did not violate the First Amendment when they allowed a display of mannequins to portray the traditional nativity scene during the show.

The biblical display was on stage for just two minutes during the 2015 holiday show, according to The South Bend Tribune.

But the dispute over the decision to allow mannequins to portray Mary, Joseph, Jesus and other well-known biblical characters actually has a deep history.

The constitutional battle began nearly a year ago when an unnamed father, his high school child and two other parents joined the Freedom From Religious Foundation, an atheist activist group, and the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a lawsuit against Concord Community Schools.

The focus of their complaint was a 20-minute live nativity scene that had been included in the annual Christmas show for nearly 50 years; it was accompanied by the story of Jesus' birth and religious hymns, USA Today reported.

(Watch the live nativity show from the 2014 show here around the 1:20:00 mark):

The central allegation was that Concord High School's inclusion of the live nativity in the annual "Christmas Spectacular" violated the First Amendment's clause separating of church and state, making it seem as though the public school district was endorsing Christianity.

"The Nativity scene and the story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith," the complaint read. "Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the high school and the school corporation, has no secular purpose and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion.”

The plaintiffs asked that the live nativity be banned, and U.S. District Judge Jon E. Deguilio of Indiana agreed late last year, issuing a preliminary injunction that prevented the school from including the live nativity in the 2015 show.

"The court finds that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits on their claim that the inclusion of the living Nativity scene in the show, as currently proposed, violates the Establishment Clause," Deguilio wrote.

Weeks later, the "Spectacular" went on without the live nativity — but the school district didn't ban the traditional Christmas story entirely, intentionally including the mannequin display in the show.

According to the South Bend Tribune, school officials had originally said the nativity wouldn't be a part of the "Spectacular" at all following Deguilio's original ruling. So it was a surprise when Mary, Joseph and Jesus appeared — although it seems the district was strategic in its implementation.

In addition to including mannequins to represent the Christmas story, the amended show also included Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs, leading Deguilio to rule this week that the 2015 show didn't, in his view, violate the First Amendment.

While the judge didn't rule on the earlier claims about the live nativity during the 2014 show, he said last year's presentation "bore little resemblance to the religious presentations of previous years," according to The Associated Press.

The FFRF responded to Deguilio's ruling in a statement on Wednesday, expressing disappointment that Concord High School will be allowed to "employ mannequins in a Christian manger scene during a Christmas celebration."

The organization added that the amended 2015 manger scene was a "disturbing shock and offense to the plaintiffs observing the concerts."

It's unclear if the FFRF or ACLU will appeal the latest decision. The original 2014 complaint is ongoing, according to the FFRF statement.

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