Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Here's how to keep Christ in public view this Christmas with free Nativity figures from the American Nativity Scene partnered with the Thomas More Society
An early Christmas present is coming this year from the Thomas More Society and American Nativity Scene. The non-profit organizations are teaming up and co-sponsoring a free Nativity scenes to folks who would display them this Christmas season in a designated or traditional public forum, either inside their state capitol or city hall or outside close by them such as city hall lawns, or in some other highly visible, heavily traveled location on public property.
Based in Chicago and formed to "Keep Christ in Christmas," the American Nativity Scene (ANS, AmericanNativityScene.com), does this by making available large figures of the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and an Angel for free. High quality figures, no less. You read right: at no cost. Because their effort is “all about the honoring of the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Christ.”
Their answer to the many attacks on Christmas in recent years is to bring beautiful Nativity scenes to as many public squares as possible during the Christmas season. And it’s all legal.
Last year, these displays were featured in several state capitols, including Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington. The Governor's mansion in Oklahoma also had one.
After a long hiatus, thanks to the Thomas More Society, Boston, Massachusetts returned to be added to this list in 2016. And Sacramento, California, appeared in 2016 too. The ANS wants to see one of these Nativity scenes inside or directly outside every single state capitol building.
In just the last three years, the ANS and the Thomas More Society working with “the blessing of [their] special benefactor/angel,” as they put it, have shipped over 300 Nativity scenes to 32 different states. Their official notice about the continuing success of this Nativity scene emphasizes that many of these “were placed in public parks, libraries, farm roads and government buildings but most importantly they are being displayed in the capitols in many of our states.”
"Atheist groups may mock our message, but we will not be silent as it is critical that Christians proclaim the Gospel message to their fellow citizens," explains Tom Brejcha, the Thomas More Society president and chief counsel, in a prepared statement. "Anti-Christian, anti-Christmas rhetoric and satanic expositions merely serve to provide sharp emphasis by means of their stark contrast with the positive, uplifting, hopeful and joyous message of Christmas.”
The ANS was founded to counter this kind of war on religious freedom by placing beautiful Nativity scenes in as many public squares as they could.
The public forum is well suited for the display, notes Brejcha. “The Christmas message bears secular as well as religious significance,” he observes, “as it highlights the hope and miracle of birth and new life, the inherent dignity of each and every human being, focusing our attention on the humble and lowly infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger amidst straw and animals, honored by shepherds and kings alike, and heralded by choirs of angels. That message of the essential equality of all human beings, no matter how rich or poor, humble or high-stationed, resonates deeply with the values that Americans cherish.”
Why are the Nativity scene figures free? Because a very generous benefactor who wants to remain anonymous makes sure of that. Individuals or groups willing to sponsor a Christmas manger scene at one of the locations mentioned get beautiful large figures of the Holy Family — Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus — and along with them the Angel announcing the birth of Christ.
Those who apply simply have to agree to provide the manger setting, which is not difficult. They also have to get the proper permits and to hold a scheduled celebration where the Nativity scene is located. The ANS explains that a private Nativity scene committee (which needs be only a tiny group, from 3-5), has to form to obtain the permit, put the scene together, and have some kind of special event when the Nativity scene is ready. After the Christmas season is over, they must store the Nativity scene. These requirements are not difficult. The ANS gives all the details.
To help with putting up the wooden manger for the scene, the ANS even provides the dimensions and all the specifics necessary for those building the simple manger or enlisting a handyman to do that for them. If no one in the group is handy, the ANS even suggests where such a manger might be purchased. The ANS makes things simple.
This “is the time of year to start finalizing plans for a privately-funded Christmas display as is legally allowed in traditional public forums such as state capitols, county complexes or city hall lawns,” said American Nativity Scene’s president Ed O'Malley in a prepared statement. He works with ANS founder Jim Finnegan.
As for this year’s hopes and goal, O'Malley told the Register, “First and foremost, the American Nativity Scene hopes to continue to honor the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Christ. This is our simple, but powerful way of doing just that. And second, to see that spread to more legitimate public squares across the country."
Perfectly Legal and Constitutional
Headquartered in Chicago, the Thomas More Society (ThomasMoreSociety.org) is a national not-for-profit law firm that defends freedom of religious speech and the free exercise of religious faith in the public square. Its pro bono attorneys offer legal services from local courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to their release, they “defend the basic rights of Nativity scene sponsors and equip citizens with the knowledge and support they need to successfully display Nativity scenes in venues that qualify as traditional and designated public forums.”
The legal precedence goes back to 1987 when the right to display a privately owned and sponsored Nativity Scene on public property was decided in federal court in Chicago in Grutzmacher vs The Chicago Building Commission. The decision supported a crèche to be displayed that way in Chicago which has continued annually ever since. The decision carried a federal injunction “banning discrimination against religious speech under the first and fourteenth amendments of our U.S. Constitution.”
The Thomas More Society reports that last year when the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and ACLU tried to force Franklin County in Indiana to remove a privately funded and sponsored Nativity Scene displayed on the courthouse lawn for over 50 years, in federal court it defeated the attack and “the court rebuffed the atheist groups’ legally baseless claim that this private display was an ‘establishment of religion by the government.’” The court ruled that the Christian citizens had a right to display the Nativity scene at a designated public forum.
Getting the Free Nativity Figures
The way to contact the American Nativity Scene, the order form, and the simple steps to do to get the Nativity scene on display are all listed on this ANS website page.
The cutoff date this year is December 1.
The ANS says, “Let us answer these ‘wars on Christmas’ by these simple but powerful steps. Let us get a Nativity Scene within your state capitol. Can we do any less for our children, families, country, and Our Lord?”
“The nativity displays represent a constitutionally protected expression by private citizens in traditional or designated public forums, where the sole role of the government is that of a viewpoint-neutral gatekeeper assuring open access for all citizens to have their ‘say,’” observes Brejcha. “If the First Amendment entitles you to get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or advocate a political point of view in a public forum, then equally you may get on the soapbox and proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ Child!”