10 Holiday Controversies

Religious Displays in Public Venues
This Nativity scene is an attraction at Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, Chicago — and also the subject of protests. Chris McKay/Getty Images

For decades Nativity scenes regularly were placed in public settings in America, places like courthouses and city parks. But in more recent years, atheists and civil liberties activists have declared crèches set on public property a violation of the separation of church and state, a tenet of American society. Individuals and groups began suing — with varied results — and so the battle resumes every holiday season, and is settled in different ways.

Indiana's Tippecanoe County once featured a Nativity scene in front of its courthouse. But after protests, an ordinance was passed in 1999 banning religious displays. Ever since then, one resident places a Nativity scene in the back of his pickup and parks the truck in front of the courthouse during the holidays, a perfectly legal move [source: Sullivan].

Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin resolved the issue by allowing all traditions to use the Capitol rotunda. Today you typically see a Nativity scene, Christmas tree, menorah, Festivus pole and winter solstice scene (with Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain as the "Three Wise Men") on display. "The rotunda is getting very cluttered," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in a gross understatement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Chicago's Daley Plaza is a notable public locale in that local law decrees a Nativity scene is allowed. After a crèche was first erected there in 1985, protests quickly erupted. An attorney obtained a federal injunction protecting the display; the injunction is now permanent. The argument for keeping the crèche was this: Since Daley Plaza was long used as a venue for free speech, including political events, you can't deny Christian speech there. And the Nativity scene is a form of Christian speech [source: Butts].