Equal Access Battle in Porter County, Indiana
On October 8, Northern Indiana Atheists went before the Porter County Commissioners to request equal access to the County Courthouse located in Valparaiso, Indiana.
The NIA portion of the video below begins at 1:16:00
Here is the full statement our president, Troy Moss, read at the commissioners meeting:
My name is Troy Moss. I’m the president of Northern Indiana Atheists. We’re a nonprofit organization established to fight for the separation of church and state locally and to defend the rights of atheists across Northern Indiana. I am here on behalf of a member in the Porter County community.
I am here to request permission to place a display on a portion of the Porter County Courthouse lawn on December 6th. I first submitted this request on August 8th and was told it would be placed on the agenda for your September 3rd meeting.
On August 12, Valparaiso Events also submitted a request to use the courthouse lawn. That request, which was sent to you after you received my request on behalf of Northern Indiana Atheists, was placed on the agenda for your August 13th meeting and was approved without the presence of anyone from Valparaiso Events.
The manner in which you have handled these two requests is troubling and strongly suggests that you are giving preference to an event with a particular religious viewpoint.
I’D LIKE TO START OFF BY GIVING YOU A TIMELINE OF EVENTS
On July 25, 2019, Northern Indiana Atheists received a state/church violation report from one of our members. The complaint stated that Porter County hosts a live nativity on their courthouse lawn in Valparaiso, Indiana, every December. The complainant stated that they have complained about the nativity in the past, but never received a response.
On August 8, 2019, we emailed a request letter to the Porter County Commissioners requesting equal access to the Porter County Courthouse property on December 6 to celebrate Holly Days.
Just a short time later, the Commission’s Administrative Assistant, Kathy Merle, emailed back and asked “Can you please send photos and dimensions of the signs you would like displayed.”
We immediately replied, asking if Valparaiso Events are also required to supply photos and dimensions of their displays. This was to make sure we weren’t being held to a different standard than other groups making the same type of request. Our research indicated that Valparaiso events was not required to provide this kind of information. Yet their access to the courthouse property has always been approved. In the hopes of clearing up the discrepancy, we requested any photos and dimensions that Valparaiso Events submitted to the Commissioners for their past events.
Later that same day, August 8th, Kathy replied, “They have been requesting the Courthouse grounds long before I came into this office so I’m not sure how their first request was handled.”
On August 14, we emailed photos and dimensions of everything we were asking to display on the County Courthouse Property during Holly Days along with the information that this display has been installed inside government buildings in South Bend, Indiana.
Kathy replied on August 14 confirming she received the photos and dimensions of our display items and that the next Commissioners’ Meeting would be held on September 3.
On September 3, after the Commissioners’ meeting, we received an email from Kathy stating “You were not in attendance at the Commissioners’ meeting this morning so the Commissioners were unable to discuss your request. Please let me know if you will be attending our October 8th meeting or if you are choosing to withdraw your request from our agenda.”
I immediately emailed Kathy back and said “Kathy, I was unaware that we needed to be in attendance at the Porter County Commissioners’ meeting in order for our request to be discussed and voted on. Is there any additional information the Commissioners need from us? Similarly, is there any additional information we need to know?”
On September 3, Kathy emailed back “No Troy we have all of the information that we need. The meeting will be held at 10:00 on Tuesday, Oct. 8th at 155 Indiana Ave., Valparaiso, in the Commissioners’ Chambers.”
On September 9, we requested a copy of the Courthouse usage request made by Valparaiso Events from Kathy.
On September 9, Kathy supplied us with Valparaiso Events request.
On September 20, we did a larger records request for communication between Porter County Commissioners’ and Valparaiso Events, Porter County Commissioners’ policies, and past Valparaiso Events requests.
NOW I’D LIKE TO GIVE A QUICK HISTORY OF HISTORY OF VALPARAISO EVENTS REQUESTS FOR USAGE OF PORTER COUNTY COURTHOUSE PROPERTY
On September 19, 2017 Valparaiso Events requested to use the courthouse grounds to hold their fall harvest festival in October. No one from Valparaiso Events was present and it was voted on and approved. No one said anything about it being the entire courthouse grounds.
On October 31, 2017 Valparaiso Events requested to use the courthouse grounds to hold their Holly Days event in December. No one from Valparaiso Events was present and it was voted on and approved. No one said anything about it being the entire courthouse grounds.
On September 18, 2018 Valparaiso Events requested to use the courthouse grounds to hold their fall harvest festival in October. No one from Valparaiso Events was present and it was voted on and approved. No one said anything about it being the entire courthouse grounds.
On October 30, 2018 Valparaiso Events requested to use the courthouse grounds for their Holly Days event in December. No one from Valparaiso Events was present and it was voted on and approved. No one said anything about it being the entire courthouse grounds.
In fact in 2018 a portion of the courthouse grounds was fenced off for construction. So Valparaiso Events managed just fine with limited space. There is precedence for them not needing the entire courthouse grounds for their events.
Also, breaking from their practice in prior years, this year Valparaiso Events requested use for Holly Days even before they requested use for their Fall Harvest Festival.
Just yesterday, October 7, we emailed Kathy a request for an additional item to be added to todays agenda. The reply from Kathy was that the deadline for agenda items is always the Tuesday prior to the Porter County Commissioners’ meeting.
At the August 13 Commissioners meeting, only five days after we first requested equal access and only ONE day after Valparaiso Events submitted their request, that request somehow made it onto the August 13 agenda and was unanimously approved. This was a violation of the one week deadline that Porter County puts on their agenda items.
At the August 13 Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Biggs asked a very loud and deliberate question about Valparaiso Events usage request, he asked, “And this is for the whole property, correct?” To which Commissioner Good very deliberately replied “That is correct.”
This was deliberately asked and confirmed by Porter County Commissioners even though the actual usage request from Valparaiso Events did not not specify the whole property, and again, breaking from years of recorded history of no one saying anything about Valparaiso Events needing the entire courthouse grounds.
This is what happened immediately after they voted to table our request. The attitudes of Porter County Commissioners Good and Biggs toward atheists were laid bare, much to the dismay of the county attorney.
Northern Indiana Atheists is a nonprofit established to fight state/church violations on a local level and defend the rights of atheists and other marginalized communities across Northern Indiana.
Membership is open to atheists and our allies who share our vision for a government that represents all citizens equally and our passion for serving our community. Your membership and donations amplify our voice and makes our impact even stronger. Become a member today at NorthernIndianaAtheists.com.