Christian homeschoolers have an opportunity to highlight the true meaning of Christmas in their towns and communities. Religious advocates have asked homeschool groups to present Nativity scenes on public property during the holiday season. This month’s column addresses the necessity and legality of these displays.

Conflict Over Christmas

For centuries, Christians have tried to keep the focus of Christmas on Jesus. In 1223 A.D., Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first known living Nativity scene at Greccio, Italy, to encourage a deeper devotion to the Christ child. That Nativity display (also known as a crèche) included a real baby, animals, and costumed performers playing the roles of Mary and Joseph. Eventually, seasonal depictions of the Nativity became a key element of global Christmas tradition. However, especially in the United States, increasing secularization has led to ever-growing waves of legal conflict over these displays.

The lawsuits began in earnest in the early 1980s, with secular groups arguing the U.S. Constitution forbid towns from displaying religious symbols of Christmas, such as a crèche. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled on the constitutionality of a public Nativity display, once approving the scene and once striking it down under the First Amendment as an improper government endorsement of religion.1

A Winning Secular Strategy?

This upcoming Advent and Christmas season will no doubt see another spike in Nativity-related legal conflict, as groups that seek a strict separation of Church and State attempt to push all religious symbolism from the public square. These secular groups scour communities across the nation looking for potential violations. They then threaten a lawsuit unless the displays are removed.

This strategy seems to be working, with more local governments shying away from Nativity scenes to avoid the expense of defending them in court—even when the displays are perfectly legal. A similar situation can occur when a town displays a menorah—a Jewish religious symbol used during Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple during the Maccabean Revolt in the second century B.C.2 But this legal strategy is also drawing a growing reaction from religious activists.  

Calling on Homeschoolers

Some homeschool groups have already been involved in public displays of the crèche. For instance, last Advent, homeschoolers in Park Rapids, Minnesota, put on several live Nativity performances in a public park.3 An organized nationwide effort is also picking up steam. Two Christian organizations—Faith and Action and the Christian Defense Coalition—headed up last year’s “Nativity Project,” which presented a living Nativity at major venues such as New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. These events generated interest from print and television media, including a live broadcast by the Fox & Friends news show.  

The Nativity Project has called on Christians to bring the crèche back into the public square. It has encouraged individuals, “families, home school groups, even just a collection of friends” to stage living Nativity performances or erect stationary displays in their local communities.4 Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, stated, “[N]o court in no municipality, anywhere across America, can say it’s unconstitutional when we've been given permission to go in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.”5 But is he right?

The Legality of It All

While there is nothing talismanic about staging a protest at the Supreme Court, Mahoney is correct about the ability of citizens to legally organize a public Nativity display. The First Amendment protects the right of “the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This includes gathering together to encourage fellow citizens to acknowledge the true religious meaning of a major national holiday.