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Creches & Nativity Displays - Are Public Creches & Nativity Displays Legal?

Public vs. Private Creches & Nativity Displays at Christmas


Surely the most obvious and divisive of the holiday questions is that of religious displays in public. These generate the most discussion, the most debate, and of course the most lawsuits — including a couple of high-profile Supreme Court cases. Understanding these issues go a long way towards helping us understand the entire spectrum of social problems surrounding religious holidays.

These disagreements are never conducted or settled very amicably, but the real tragedy lies in the fact that these debates don't really need to occur in the first place. Throughout America, even the smallest towns usually have at least one large church and/or synagogue either on or close to the main thoroughfare. Except in cases of excessive noise or lights, it would be difficult for anyone to complain about religious displays here — and what better place for religious displays than on religious ground?

In fact, every religious organization can put out a religious display, filling the town. This would lead to even more religious displays than having a single scene on public property. Why isn't this course of action followed? Apparently, it isn't enough to simply display a religious scene; instead, what is needed for some sort of official imprimatur by having the display in government spaces.

There actually exists two types of public religious displays: those paid for or otherwise sponsored by the government and those paid for and sponsored by private organizations, but erected on government property. There are no constitutional questions involving displays paid for private groups, sponsored by private groups, and erected on private property, so they aren't discussed here. The issues surrounding the first types of displays are similar, but there are enough constitutional differences that they need to be considered separately.


Public Sponsorship of Creches & Nativity Displays
Religious displays which have been fully paid for and sponsored by the government are not as common today as they once were, but they still occur, especially in conjunction with secular displays — a fact which has become a key constitutional issue. The religious aspects of the displays themselves consist primarily of nativity scenes with creches and, sometimes, a menorah.

Private Sponsorship of Creches & Nativity Displays
Privately sponsored religious displays differ from those supported by the government in that a private group owns, stores and erects the display. Furthermore, the display is usually placed in an area open to all manner of speech, for example the proverbial "public square" in the center of town or in public parks. This is what makes them wholly private, because the displays are not given any special treatment or consideration which is unavailable to other displays from other groups through the year.

Court Cases on Creches & Nativity Displays
Summaries and backgrounds on several court cases that have addressed whether the government can have religious displays on public grounds during the Christmas holidays. Are nativity scenes permitted? What about menorahs? Should there be secular symbols as well?

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