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The Nativity-Scene Litigation Roundup: 2020

Christmas and manger scene with life size statues of Virgin Mary, Jesus Child, steer, donkey in a plaza.
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

For many of us, one of the best things about the holiday season is the Nativity scenes.

Well, not so much the scenes themselves – which are fine. No, we're talking the inevitable squabbles that erupt every holiday season about these religious depictions. There's usually a bunch of them.

As the most dismal year in anyone's memory draws to a close, those of us with twisted senses of humor were looking forward to this year's offerings from the Nativity scene front.

Perhaps, we hoped, there might be an incident as captivating as the Satanic Temple's lawsuit against Franklin County, Indiana, a few years back. Or maybe something along the lines of the zombie nativity scene that raised such a fuss in Cincinnati five years go.

Alas, no. We could find only two lawsuits involving Nativity scenes, and neither seems very exciting:

  • In Jackson County, Indiana, a federal judge ruled that the county's annual Nativity display on courthouse grounds leaned too much toward the religious aspects of Christmas as opposed to the secular. In November, however, the court granted a temporary stay that allows the display to remain up for now.
  • A legal outcome is still pending in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where the Knights of Columbus has been seeking to place a Nativity scene in a city bandstand over the city's objections.

The Ongoing Church/State Battle

These are nothing like the great Palisades Park battle in Santa Monica, California, that captured many a headline in 2002. You might recall how 50 years of tradition went down the drain when a group of atheists successfully sued to have the usual Nativity scene removed from a park. You might also recall how that prompted lawyer William Becker of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to warn that the city was “going down the slippery slope" of becoming “the People's Republic of Santa Monica."

But if you think that secularism is winning the battle, think again. According to the Thomas More Society, the number of states displaying Nativity scenes at their capitols is currently 31, an increase of four from last year.

In the U.S. there's a concept called “separation of church and state," and that's what these lawsuits always involve. Where is that line of separation to be drawn? How far can the government go in sending a religious message?

Churches Sending Political Messages

No doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone home, these sorts of disputes dwindled this year.

But there have been other Nativity depictions by churches themselves that have stirred controversy for other reasons.

Claremont United Methodist Church in California last year created a nativity display protesting Trump administration immigration polices by placing Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in cages. This year, they placed the figures in front of a mural of masked Black Lives Matter protesters.

St. Susanna Church in Dedham, Massachusetts, created a Nativity scene depicting global warming: the characters are nearly drowning in blue plastic waves.

And then of course, there's an entire cottage industry of rogue nativity scenes upon which we will not pass judgment.

Instead, we will wait to see how 2021 plays out and hope that next holiday season will provide a better crop of Nativity scene legal disagreements to savor.

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