The California Capitol has hosted a Christmas tree for more than eight decades, and a menorah for more than two. Now a group that promotes free religious expression nationwide hopes to start another holiday ritual in Sacramento this weekend: a Nativity scene at the statehouse.
The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm, announced this week that on Sunday it would bring the first crèche to the Capitol grounds since 1974. Planned in collaboration with local religious organizations, the traditional depiction of newborn Jesus in the manger will be displayed on the north steps through Dec. 26.
The effort is part of the American Nativity Scene project, which aims to put a crèche in every state capitol in the country. After launching in Illinois eight years ago, it has expanded to 12 other states so far, sponsored by an anonymous benefactor.
Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, said the nativity scene is not only “a nice tradition that adds meaning to Christmas,” but also is an important reminder that the separation of church and state does not prevent private individuals from openly discussing their beliefs.
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“There is a misperception that you can’t say anything religious in the public square,” he said. “You have an equal right to get up on that soapbox and preach your religious faith.”
Battles have long been waged in American culture over where to draw the line on government-affiliated presentations of religion, with conservative organizations pushing for more prominent civic displays to counteract a perceived “War on Christmas,” and atheists suing over biblical references at city halls and courthouses that they feel hew too closely to a public endorsement of Christianity.
In 1973, then-Sen. Anthony Beilenson and members of the Jewish community objected to a nativity scene that the local chapter of the California State Employees Association had sponsored on the Capitol grounds for 35 years, saying it violated the separation of church and state. The group decided the forgo the crèche that year, and though a campaign for its return succeeded in 1974, the organizer announced in 1975 that the display would be discontinued once and for all because Gov. Jerry Brown would not allow it.
California, however, has largely stayed out of the fight since then.
The Capitol Christmas tree was redubbed a “holiday tree” in 1999 by Gov. Gray Davis, whose spokesman said at the time that the name “more accurately symbolizes the diversity of what the holidays are in California,” but his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, changed it back.
A giant menorah that Chabad of Sacramento lights at the Capitol every Hanukkah has mostly drawn criticism from other Jewish organizations that believe it secularizes a religious symbol.
While the government is prohibited from endorsing a religion, such a display is allowed as long as any group is given an equal opportunity for an equivalent exhibition of its own faith, according the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California,
The California Highway Patrol, which processes applications to use the Capitol grounds, said it does not even consider the religious nature of an event when determining whether to grant a permit.
The forthcoming crèche is privately funded and will be erected by volunteers, including Tom Bielejeski of the Knights of Columbus at St. Michael’s Parish in Stockton.
Bielejeski said his congregation got involved with bringing the American Nativity Scene to California because two of its members previously worked on the project in Illinois. He said their goal is to “share the Christmas spirit” that has “been neglected in recent years” amid attempts to restrict free speech and block religious memorials.
“We feel people are trying to shunt it aside,” Bielejeski said. “It’s an important part of our heritage.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated from print and online versions to indicate that it would be the first crèche at the Capitol since 1974. Context on the history was also added.