BOSTON – For the second year, Rep. Jim Lyons plans to set up a temporary Nativity scene inside the Statehouse but his intentions are drawing protests from a secular group that accuses the Andover Republican of a “politically motivated” stunt meant to stir controversy.
Lyons said the display depicting the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem will be put up Dec. 20 at an event featuring choirs singing traditional hymns and speeches by religious figures. The event will be held from noon to 4 p.m. in the Great Hall.
The Bureau of the State House — which balked at previous requests for a Nativity creche — gave Lyons permission for the event.
But Zachary Bos, Massachusetts state director for American Atheists, argues that religious displays have no place in government buildings.
“This is a political statement,” he said. “He’s grasping at low-hanging political fruit to satisfy a handful of constituents and shake the money trees for support from their donors for pro-life legislation.”
Lyons said he isn’t trying to stir controversy, just attention to the “true meaning of Christmas.”
“Our message is one of love, joy and hope,” he said. “We’re not trying to make a political statement.”
The Nativity will remain in place for several hours, he said, and will be taken down shortly after the event.
Other participants in the event will include members of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute.
Lyons first set up a Nativity scene at the Statehouse last year after getting a request from a constituent to place one on the building’s lawn.
When the Bureau of the State House rejected his request, Lyons contacted the Thomas More Society, a conservative nonprofit law firm that specializes in religious freedom matters. The Chicago-based group threatened to sue over the Nativity scene, calling it a First Amendment issue.
After some wrangling, the bureau relented and gave Lyons permission for a temporary display.
Thomas Brejcha, the Thomas More Society’s president and chief counsel, said Nativity scenes are constitutionally protected speech. As long as it wasn’t built by or paid for by the state, he said, it should be allowed.
“The government’s role is a gatekeeper to the public square, so they have a responsibility to remain neutral and open to everybody,” he said. “If you can get on your soapbox and stump your politics, you should be allowed to do the same with religion.”
The battle over what sort of religious — or nonreligious — displays are allowed in public places has become a holiday ritual. It raises questions about the intersection between First Amendment protections of free speech and religion, as well as prohibitions on a government-established religion.
In some cases, the disputes prompt legal fights pitting civil libertarians and atheists against state government, Christian groups and citizens.
The Thomas More Society has set similar displays up at a dozen other state capitols and hopes to do so in every state.
President Donald Trump — a Republican who has vowed to “bring back Christmas” — recently sought to discredit his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, by suggesting that he had banned Nativity scenes from the White House after taking office in 2008. The claim has been debunked.
To be sure, the Nativity scene won’t be the only religious display at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Gov. Charlie Baker and dozens of other elected officials took part in the ceremonial lighting of a 15-foot menorah honoring the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The menorah lighting is an annual Statehouse event.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Baker, DeLeo or other state lawmakers will attend Lyons’ Nativity event.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.