Indiana Atheists asked to use the Courthouse Lawn on Friday, Dec. 6--the
same day Valparaiso Events has been approved to host its annual Holly Days
celebration. The Commissioners approved the use of the Courthouse grounds
for Holly Days at their Aug. 13 meeting.
President of the South Bend-based group, said the way the Commissioners have
handled the two requests is troubling for several reasons. Moss reported he
first contacted Porter County on Aug. 8 about a request to set up an
information table and display signs on the Courthouse lawn on Dec. 6 and was
denied a place on the Aug. 13 agenda because he didn’t submit a request to
be on it at least a week in advance.
However, Moss says
a copy of Valparaiso Events’ request shows that they were put on the agenda
with only a day’s notice. Moss also said he was asked to provide photos of
and dimensions for the two signs his group plans to display. “Our research
indicates that Valparaiso events was not required to provide this kind of
information.,” Moss said.
The group was on
the agenda for Sept. 3, but the Board continued the issue because no one
from the group attended. Moss said no one told him he had to be present for
his request to be heard, and said Valparaiso Events’ requests have been
historically approved without a member of the group present.
Just prior to Moss
making his request, the Board in fact approved Valparaiso Events to use the
Courthouse lawn for the Fall Harvest Festival Oct. 18, with no members of
the group present. The Board’s August approval of Holly Days was the same.
Scott McClure told Moss Valparaiso Events isn’t getting preferential
treatment, but the Board is just more familiar with them and their recurring
events. He noted the Board asked another religious group, Courtside
Ministries, to come to multiple meetings to sort out an agreement to offer
prayer to those who want it as they leave or enter the Courthouse on
The agreement with
that group specified that they cannot use the Courthouse lawn on any days
where another group has been approved to use it. Members of the prayer group
are also prohibited from approaching people and using the square concrete
pad directly in front of the south Courthouse entrance, according to
Biggs, R-North, and Jeff Good, R-Center, and McClure suggested the group can
request another date, but Moss maintained that equal access to him means NIA
should be allowed to use the Courthouse grounds during Holly Days. Moss said
there is precedent for the group not needing the whole grounds, since part
of the site was under construction last year, and the Holly Days request
doesn’t specify use of the entire lawn.
“You want to be
there at the same time as they do for a certain reason,” Biggs said. “I
believe you’re there to cause trouble, that’s my opinion, and as a public
official, I don’t have to stand up here and promote that.” Biggs said no one
is denying the group access, but the Board decides what day and time groups
use the space.
The Board voted to
table the discussion, and the exchange escalated when Good mumbled that Moss
should “go back to Michiana.” Good hesitated to repeat himself when Moss
called him on the comment, but then said, “I said it cause I said it. Good
As Moss walked past
Biggs to return to the audience, Biggs felt that Moss was “staring him down”
and got out of his seat. Biggs told Moss “don’t come in here to cause
trouble. Now I want you to leave.” McClure stood up to separate Biggs and
Moss, and assured the group that there’s an agreement to be made.
In the furor, a
member of the audience was upset by the Board’s treatment of the group. She
stood up and said there are “good people” who live and were born in
Valparaiso who believe in separation of church and state. She then walked
out of the meeting.
Township resident Pamela Tincher questioned the Board during the public
comment. She asked if other groups, such as a Muslim group or the Satanic
Temple, would get the same blanket approval to offer prayer as Courtside
Ministries received. McClure said every request is unique, but the Courtside
Ministries agreement isn’t a stance. “Just because Courtside Ministries may
be there on Tuesday, that doesn’t mean a Muslin group or the Atheists cannot
be there another day,” McClure said.
Tincher said County
officials shouldn’t want a religious freedom lawsuit on their hands: “I
think that it’s a waste of taxpayer money. Just wanted to put that out
After the meeting,
Biggs said he got out of his seat and got in Moss’ face because he was upset
by Moss’ “attitude.” He added, “Should I have done it? No. I wouldn’t do it
Biggs said he was
happy to go on record saying he doesn’t support the group’s beliefs, but he
thinks they still have a right to speak, although he won’t approve two
groups to use the same space if their opposing messages might ignite a