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.




About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at

  • pjmaertz

    Thanks for the eloquent and in depth response. In my neck of the woods I’m unaware of any unconstitutional displays, so I’m just sticking to saying “Happy Holidays” to those that I know it will piss off. For me, working christians with persecution complexes into a lather is the reason for the season!

    • http://na nancy hulbert

      How stupid can this be? What does it hurt anyway, other than your sensitive egos. I think free thinkers are even more narrow minded than extreme christians. I don’t care to see it but it is their right to display. I honestly and really believe people who like to protest religious displays are just looking for attention and media time of fame! I’ve known your type who demand a religious display be removed from a person’s own property! Put your big boy and girl panties on and let people do what they want. As Johnny says ” Im an atheist and that’s ok to let people believe what they want and display what they want!

      • Nate Frein

        You knew someone who demanded a religious display be removed from private property?

        Well, I’m not gonna call you a liar, but…

        [citation needed]

        • http://na nancy hulbert

          Actually it did happen in my town about 2yrs ago, neighbor across the street said it was offensive when she looked out her front window..duh, they didn’t have to remove it but there was a court hearing, wasted tax payers money for silly stuff!

          • Nate Frein

            Sorry. That’s not exactly evidence. But thanks for playing.

            And if there really was a civil suit that was dismissed, then the plaintiff would have been charged court fees. No wasted tax dollars.

      • John Horstman

        I’m getting sick of whacking this particular mole, but it just won’t stay down. Someone trying to ban religious displays on private property is a jerk – you’re not going to find much disagreement with that idea around here. That’s very different from religious displays on public land, which are patently illegal (unless anyone and everyone is allowed to set up displays, and always illegal if the government institution itself is putting up the display from what I understand, though my opinion is not nearly as informed as Anne’s; cue tacky excess). Please don’t conflate the two.

        Point the second: if people are seeking attention, so what? When did this become a credibility-undermining insult? I see this one get (often inaccurately) thrown at women a lot, and I’m just not sure what’s supposed to be back about trying to get people to pay attention to oneself. When you get down to it, pretty much all activism is about seeking attention, even if it has other more-concrete goals. Why is this a problem?

        Point the third: even if the primary goal of someone is to gain attention, religious displays on public land are still illegal (in the way in which they usually play out, with a Christian display and nothing else), and opposing them is still a service to the public. Someone’s lousy motivation (if you think it is that, though I’m not sure why – see above) for enforcing the law doesn’t make hir any less right.

  • baal

    Errata – (loved the peice btw, If I used Facebook, I’d post it there )
    ” the god that takes elephant form,” Well, Lord Ganesh was decapitated which is usually the end of the story but his mother got a boon so she asked for his resurrection. His head, however, was lost in the interim so then used a baby elephant head instead. So he doesn’t really take the elephant forms so much as just has a elephant’s head (now his).

    I live in the upper midwest in a suburb of a major city. There aren’t any nativities for me to complain about on public property. It’s a kind of a shame really.

    The Catholics have excised (downplayed?) the graven images clause from the 10 commandments. #2 now reads:Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. It seems they really like the christ on the cross bit and made the commandments a little different to avoid that little problem.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    on what I think is public land

    Before taking any measures, you need to find the facts on that. And since you’re from England, I’ll clarify that there are only constitutional issues if it is government land (since usage of “public” differs).

  • Amyc

    Actually, the date of the celebration of Ganapati changes. It’s not always in December. It’s still a fun festival though.

  • GBJames

    There is a simple two step strategy that has been shown to work time and time again.

    1) Join the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (
    2) Send them an email describing the problem situation

    They deal with this sort of thing all the time.

  • g

    baal: no, the RCs haven’t removed the bit about graven images. They just number the commandments differently. In the RC numbering, #1 includes both the no-other-gods clause and the no-idols clause, they’re then off by 1 relative to Protestants until the end, where they split the Protestant #10 into two: #9 is no coveting wives, #10 is no coveting other things.

  • UsingReason

    With or without permission present a living Festivus scene beside the Nativity display. Obviously this should be the feats of strength part of the traditional Festivus celebration. You could also combine a little New Year’s celebration by performing the feats of strength (wrestling) dressed as Baby New Year. Sure to get the attention of friends and neighbors ( and some not so friendlies).

  • Andy

    This was my email, so first of all thanks for the in-depth reply.

    I did perhaps use the wrong terminology with regards to government/public land. The village administration office is just across the road so I’ll go and get clarification from them.

    I’d much rather they let us all put something up rather than ban everything. I’ll get some feedback from them and give an update when I get one. It’s getting a bit late for this year, but it will be good to know all this in advance of next year’s awful scene.

  • Geo

    Well since this is in the states, maybe replace it with a nice gun display. This seems to be your true calling. My heart felt condolences go out to the families of those school children and of those 2 fireman from the West Webster Fire Department, that were just shot and killed today while answering there calling.

    • Anne

      A gun display is my “true calling”? How in the world did you come to that conclusion?

      • John Horstman

        Confusing anti-gun post is confusing.