Northern Indiana Atheists Seeks Equal Access to Elkhart County Courthouse
By: Daniel Dick
Northern Indiana Atheists (NIA) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the separation of church and state, fighting for the rights of atheists, and serving our community. There has always been a push by religious organizations to influence public policy and chip away at protections against the establishment of a theocracy. One such organization, Courthouse Ministries (CM) has, for several years, used public property to proselytize. CM is a national organization offering prayers for people who enter or exit courthouses. They offer pamphlets that, of course, offer nothing more than information about how readers can adhere to their specific belief system. NIA decided it wanted equal access to the Courthouse so it could offer friendly faces to all people—with and without faith—and monitor CM as their members interact with the community.
NIA’s journey began when it noticed signs posted on the Courthouse lawn in Goshen, Indiana, promoting the National Day of Prayer, an occurrence that had happened in years past. In March of this year, NIA contacted Elkhart County Administrator Tom Byers, requesting to display a banner of its own as the National Day of Prayer Task Force had done in the past. On March 27, Byers responded that “the County Commissioners no longer allow signs or banners to be placed on the courthouse lawn in advance or during gatherings.”
NIA was content with the decision but suspicious about the timeline of events, considering a religious organization had been given access in past years without protest by the commissioners. NIA board members researched the meeting minutes provided by the Elkhart County Commissioners public records and found nothing related to such a decision.
NIA then emailed Byers again with follow-up questions regarding the decision to change the policy. On March 28, NIA received an email from Byers that said this: “Discussions regarding a ban on affixed signs and banners occurred last summer when the county got complaints about ‘advertising’ signs being placed on the lawn. . . . At the time, the feeling was we would eliminate signs and banners being affixed to the lawn. Your request just happened to be the first request we have received since last summer that requested a banner. The decision on your request for a banner was made Monday.”
With no official report in the County Commissioner meeting minutes, no change to the county’s ordinance, and NIA’s request for equal access, NIA concluded that there had to be more to the story than the county simply accepted that the National Day of Prayer Task Force shouldn’t display banners.
NIA President Troy Moss then contacted County Commissioner Mike Yoder to follow up on the request and timeline. Mr. Yoder offered a different story of events; he indicated that the decision to ban fixed signs on the courthouse lawn was made after commissioners received NIA’s request, leaving both the National Day of Prayer Task Force and NIA without access to fixed signs on the Courthouse lawn. This response was inconsistent with the information given by Byers.
This brings us to the Courthouse lawn and the CM folks’ trying to bring religion into government. For the past three years, CM has set up tables every Friday at the Elkhart County Courthouses promising “counseling” and “healing.” NIA again asked for equal access to the County Courthouse in Goshen at the same place and time as CM. The initial response by Commissioner Yoder seemed to be a way to shut NIA out: Yoder asserted that CM was allowed to be there because it had a “variance to the County ordinance.” According to the ordinance, each violation comes with a fine of $1,000.
Moss immediately requested the same variance granted to CM. Commissioner Yoder later responded that CM did not actually have a variance, but NIA could have equal access under the strict guidelines of the ordinance. So, in true NIA form, when atheists’ rights were under attack, NIA showed up.
On September 14, NIA placed its table on the Courthouse sidewalk and stood behind the table with fewer than four people, as required by the ordinance. As CM began its move on the Courthouse, their seven members set their table on the grass (in violation of the ordinance) and stood in front of the table in a group, ready to approach anyone trying to gain access to the courthouse or exit the courthouse.
The group from CM initially stood away from the courthouse and prayed, but as individuals began to enter and exit the courthouse, they started to gather at the bottom of the stairs, again, in clear violation of the ordinance. As NIA members stayed behind the NIA table, providing water, cookies, and fruit snacks, CM targeted almost every person with an offer of religious intervention. They stationed themselves at the bottom of the stairs and swarmed anyone trying to enter or leave the courthouse. The attached video shows a male CM volunteer following a young woman out to her car. The woman walks directly past the CM people without stopping. Even when individuals verbally and physically opted out of the option for prayer, they were harassed by CM until they were off county property.
NIA calmly offered cold water and snacks to anyone who was thirsty or hungry, a true help for the real stress each individual faces while entering an appellate court on a Friday morning.
Once the crowds had died down, Moss spoke with a CM member about their goals and vision. Moss shared NIA’s vision and one of NIA’s goals of providing the men and women who are homeless in our community with clothes for the winter. Looking to find common ground on a humanitarian level, Moss asked the member what CM or his church does for the community. He motioned toward their table and said, “We do this.”
After a long silence, he added, “Nothing.”
Northern Indiana Atheists is a 501c3 organization established to fight state/church violations on a local level and defend the rights of atheists across Northern Indiana. Membership is open to atheists and our allies who share our vision for a government that represents all citizens equally, our passion for serving our community, and our enjoyment of educating people on what it means to be an atheist in Northern Indiana. Your membership and donations amplify our voice and makes our impact even stronger. Become a member today: https://northernindianaatheists.com/become-a-member/