Activism: How to Address Those Nativity Scenes

Reader Question:

I live in a small village in Ohio just outside of Cincinnati and there is the usual awful nativity scene on what I think is public land (a small park beside main street). As far as I can tell, nobody has ever challenged the Christian monopoly in a place like this, but I’d like to know what you think the best options / available courses of action are.

I’m from England originally, so I’m not always sure what the best course of action is in this country, and people aren’t always exactly willing to help, so any assistance would be appreciated. I’d like to know if what they are doing is legal and what my options are to challenge the hegemony.



For instance, Lewis County, Tennessee is proudly displaying a Non-Christians-Need-Not-Apply message this season. Does anyone out there want to get in on this one?


There are a couple of different ways to go on this.

First, there’s the “Public Property Should Never be Used for Religious Displays Because That Promotes Religion” approach, in which we ask the public entity to remove its religious displays of suffer a lawsuit, and that works and makes a lot of people angry at us. We sue, the court says that by only displaying religious symbols from one religion the government entity is establishing religion, our attorney gets paid by the government entity, and the mission is accomplished.

Then, there’s the “Include My Display in the Public Forum” approach, which means that public property gets littered with a confusing mélange of tacky seasonal displays from many different religions, and hopefully from secular groups as well. Eventually the number of displays becomes burdensome, so they all get nixed. Or, there’s some other controversy, like we saw recently in Santa Monica, California, and the displays get nixed or moved to private property. (There’s no problem at all with moving them to private property. That’s where religious displays belong.)

So first, let’s define the parameters of what we want to accomplish. What are the goals?

  1. The goal of separation of church and state, of non-establishment, of the First Amendment,  is to prevent religious favoritism, but without denying anyone the right to practice their preferred flavor of religion.
  2. The goal of good taste is to rid public forums of seriously tacky seasonal displays.

And sometimes we have to jump on the tackiness train – sinking to the level of the worthy opposition – to get our point across and to let good taste prevail.

Once it looks like this at City Hall, people tend to call a halt to things.

But how to get to this point?

The local public square, city hall, city park, courthouse lawn, or whatever has its nativity scene. That’s typically the only thing that is displayed, because churches are more organized and wealthier than anyone else and can afford those life-size graven images of their baby god and his family.

The Nativity Scene at the Arkansas State Capitol is graven of wood. Good thing no one worships any of those images or considers them sacred. (source)

In case you weren’t aware:

Source: FFRF

But I digress.

Once the governing entity – city, county, or state – allows one private person to exercise his First Amendments rights in a public area, that area becomes a public forum for anyone to speak. That includes us. It riles the hard-core Christians to allow someone without religion to display something secular next theirs. Oh, they don’t mind the menorahs, usually, because Hanukkah is close to Christmas. But add atheists to the mix and they get testy.

Atheists need to ask to be added to the mix more often. Seriously. The Christians stole this holiday from earlier traditions and even from traditions that competed with them over a thousand years later. They do not “own” Christmas, no matter what this big winter holiday season is called. And if they get to erect gaudy, tacky displays, so do we.

It can be fun, like Santa and reindeer or a maze of giant illuminated candy canes. Personally, I’m fond of the educational displays, which explain the solstice and axial tilt as the reason for the season. How about a display telling about the non-Christian roots of things like garlands, mistletoe, decorated trees, wassailing, and Yule?

We atheists don’t necessarily have to go it alone, either. Even in your small community, you may have local families who aren’t Christian and who celebrate during the Christmas season for other reasons. One way I think to make a great point is to get a group of different kinds of non-Christians together to come up with something appropriately seasonal.

  • Iranians in your community probably observe Yalda, which is what the original Persian celebration of Mithra’s birth has become. The multi-day celebration is celebrated with feasting and fires.
  • Is there a Buddhist center nearby? They might never have thought of participating, but they have something to offer, too. Bodhi Day, the day the Buddha achieved enlightenment, is December 8. It is observed in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
  • Do you know any Wiccans? Those are some creative folks, and their traditions are well-represented in the Christian season.
  • How big is your local Asian community? Dong Zhi is the Chinese festival celebrating the winter solstice. Add Chinese lanterns to winter holiday displays!
  • Find out who organizes Kwanzaa celebrations in your community, and get them involved, too.  It can be something as simple as a sign.
  • Modern Hindus have a five-day celebration from December 21-25 called Pancha Ganapati, during which shrines to Lord Ganesha, the god that takes elephant form, are erected.
  • Obviously, Hanukkah is celebrated this time of the year, too. Ask Jewish neighbors to erect a menorah and break out the dreidels.

Pretty soon that lawn at City Hall will be so crowded with alternate seasonal displays that the people visiting it will end up getting educated in spite of themselves. They will realize that there are, indeed, many reasons for the holiday season. When they do, their minds are opened to differing viewpoints. And since we won’t have taken away their graven images, so they won’t be quite as mad at us.

Now, in all honesty, you might have to sue to enforce your rights in this regard. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole group of plaintiffs representing multiple traditions? Talk about giving power to alternate voices!

You’ll win that lawsuit, too. And when you win, you’ve won forever. Plus, your lawyer will get paid by the government that denied you your constitutional rights.

Winter Solstice Display
Yes, Virginia, you DO have a right to erect secular seasonal displays next to the Christians’ graven images. This outhouse model even comes with reading material already on the walls. See what it says on side 1, side 2, side 3, and side 4.




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