Atheists Irked By Nativity Scene Displayed Inside State House

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BOSTON — A local atheists’ group is crying foul over the decision to allow a Nativity scene to be displayed inside the State House, just days before Christmas.

Zachary Bos, state director for American Atheists, told the NewBostonPost that he is specifically angered at what he called a “legal threat” posed by the Thomas More Society, a conservative Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that specializes in part in religious freedom matters.

The saga began when state Representative Jim Lyons (R-Andover) sought permission in November from the Bureau of the State House to erect a Nativity scene on the building’s front lawn. Lyons told the NewBostonPost that the bureau informed him that “religious displays are not allowed.” Undeterred, Lyons applied for permission to have an indoor Nativity display. Lyons said the bureau needed to check with House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) for permission first. Lyons said he was prompted to reach out to the Thomas More Society on Dec. 15 after his requests were met with silence.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for DeLeo, confirmed to the NewBostonPost in a prepared statement that the bureau “sought guidance” from the Speaker’s office.

“The Speaker’s office immediately referred the request to House Counsel for guidance as to whether the Bureau of the State House could approve it,” Gitell stated, regarding Lyons’s request to have the Nativity scene erected on the lawn. “Then, prior to receiving a response from House Counsel, Rep. Lyons filed a second request, this time to erect the creche in the Great Hall.

“After consultation with House staff, the Bureau of the State House approved the second request in a matter of days.”

Lyons held the event, which featured clergy members from several area churches, inside the Great Hall today from 12 p.m. until 3 p.m.. The creche was removed from the State House once the event ended.

Prior to the event, Lyons talked to reporters about the atheists group’s remarks.

“Our message is one of love, joy and hope,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what their message is, we just hope they appreciate what we’re doing.”  

Lyons shared a copy of his correspondence with the society. In a letter back to Lyons, Thomas More’s president and chief counsel, Thomas Brejcha, outlined several reasons why Lyons’ request should be granted and added that he would be “prepared to litigate” the case should the bureau refuse.

Bos argued that it was “quite cynical of the Thomas More Society to come in and shoehorn their opportunism into the holidays.”

“We know that they were just looking for some low-hanging fruit of a legal win by issuing this threat letter to get the Nativity scene in place in the State House,” Bos added. “They’re just going to convert that support from their donors to support pro-life legislation.

“It’s just not in keeping in the spirit of the season.”

Bos spoke to the NewBostonPost shortly before his group erected a banner of its own on the Common:

Bos noted, however, he has “less of a problem” with another religious display located inside the State House. On Wednesday, DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, state Auditor Suzanne Bump and other lawmakers took part in the ceremonial lighting of a 15-foot menorah honoring the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The menorah lighting is an annual State House event.

The menorah, located near the foot of the State House’s Grand Staircase, also boasts the names of four “sponsors” that feature prominently at its base: Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karen Polito, DeLeo, and Rosenberg.

The menorah has remained in place, unattended, since Wednesday. 

“It’s less opportunistic,” Bos said about the menorah lighting. “It’s coming out of a long-standing tradition, but that’s the problem with these things — there are no distinctions between what is an inappropriate sectarian display and presence and where it begins to cross the line.”

Bos said that the matter should be up for discussion and settled in a “neighborly” way.

“I think that the legal threat from the Thomas More Society was not neighborly,” he said.

Brejcha told NewBostonPost that constitutionally speaking, as long as Lyons’s Nativity scene was not erected or paid for by the government, it should be allowed to stay.

“If you can get on your soapbox and stump your politics, you should be allowed to do the same with religion,” Brejcha said. “The government’s sole role is a gatekeeper to the public square and they have a responsibility to be neutral and open to everybody.”

He pointed out that the American Civil Liberties Union “publicly approved” the society’s bid to have a Nativity scene installed at the Illinois State House. Nativity scenes have also popped up inside Iowa’s State House in Des Moines and in California’s State House in Sacramento. Brejcha added that atheists, under the Constitution, also have a right to install a banner or any other symbol inside a similar public space.

Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the NewBostonPost that the government “cannot pick and choose” which sects can and can’t produce displays.

“They have to be content and viewpoint neutral,” she said.

For example, Wunsch said, “you could have the Ku Klux Klan come in” or have “an atheist organization coming in with a ‘there is no God’ sign.”

Brejcha agreed.

“The government can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, but not content,” Brejcha said. “No doubt, Beelzebub snorting fire next to the Nativity is not something we want to see, but that’s the law, and they have a right.”

Without knowing of Brejcha’s ‘Beelzebub’ comment, Bos broached such a scenario and noted that American Atheists has never made a request to put up a display inside the State House.

“I don’t fault the decision-makers inside the State House for not wanting to escalate the situation,” Bos said about the decision to allow the Nativity scene to be displayed. “But next year we’ll be glad to give them support if the Thomas More Society thinks that we need to have another Nativity scene in the State House.

“I think we need to have a secular display — I may even go so far as to say it might even have a goat’s head on it.”

WATCH — State Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) on atheists and whether a Nativity scene is controversial:

Read the Thomas More Society’s letter:

Nativity scene correspondence by Evan on Scribd