WASHINGTON - A couple of Christian rights groups placed a nativity scene in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, as part of an effort to encourage Americans to do the same in front of public buildings all across the United States.
The National Clergy Council and the Christian Defense Coalition point out many Americans falsely believe such displays are forbidden, and so creches have disappeared from many places where they used to be commonplace.
"Sadly we are seeing an erosion of the public expression of faith. Nowhere is this more seen than during the Christmas season," said Reverend Pat Mahoney, national director of the Christian Defense Coalition.
Mahoney said these Christian rights groups started "The Nativity Project" to address this erosion, and to remind Americans that "our Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
"Tragically the courts have ruled that in many places, cities themselves can no longer display nativity scenes," Mahoney stated. "But we've discovered individual citizens can go to their city halls, state capitol buildings, government buildings, and as individual citizens they can place nativity scenes up in these public places."
And that's what The Nativity Project is asking Americans to do.
Reverend Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, a co-sponsor of the Nativity Project, said it's important for citizens to exercise this right. "This is not only okay, it is to be encouraged. In fact the more we exercise this right the stronger that right becomes in our national life."
Schenck said people have a false sense of understanding about the separation of church and state.
"Our forefathers made it quite clear that the so-called wall of separation between church and state is a gate, and it's a one-way gate, and it prohibits the government from interfering with religion or imposing religion," he said. "But it does not in anyway prohibit American citizens, churches, congregations, believers, worshippers from bringing their faith out into the public. That's one of our great freedoms."
These groups are part of a Christian coalition also asking all Americans to place nativity scenes outside their own private homes, an effort called "Operation Nativity." Mahoney said it's an important way to witness.
"That Christ child who was born is the only one who can bring peace and hope and comfort in the hearts and lives of humanity," he said.
"We are asking people of faith all across this country to go to their government buildings.in some circumstances you would need a permit, in some circumstances you don't.and display the powerful message of the Christmas season," Mahoney continued.
Schenck accused groups like the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State of staging a campaign of intimidation to eradicate these displays.
"But the American people need to know it's not only legal, it is protected," he explained. "You can put these displays on your own private property. And you can secure permits and permission to place them on public property, including in front of city halls, fire halls, town halls, county seats, state capitols and even in front of the United States Supreme Court or the U.S. Capitol."
Mahoney said for the first time ever, the groups have received permission from Times Square to stage a live nativity scene December 6th right in the middle of Times Square.
He said it's important, but not only in Times Square.
"The powerful message of Christmas is that God reached out to us to provide us hope and comfort," Mahoney said. "The nativity scene is a reminder that there are no political solutions, there are no economic solutions, to provide answers to the longing of our heart."
"So when we come out and display these nativity scenes publicly, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about the hope of Christmas, the message of God, the comfort that only God can bring," he continued. "Only God can provide these kinds of answers in our heart. They can come from no other avenue."
*Originally published November 20, 2009