Published On: Mon, Nov 30th, 2015

Chicago: 25th anniversary of nativity secures expression of religion freedom

Controversies over nativity scenes have made headlines across the country in recent Christmases – courts arguing from California to Florida over whether to allow faith-based Christmas displays at county buildings, schools and state capitals. Despite this national trend toward challenging crèches, Chicago’s Christmas nativity has been a constant of downtown holiday celebrations for over three decades and will return this Saturday.

The manger scene depicting the baby Jesus has been part of Chicago’s Christmas tradition for 31 years, but its appearance at Daley Plaza was not without controversy. In1985, city and county officials nearly shut down the Daley Plaza nativity scene, silencing Christians’ expression of their faith in that traditional public forum. Protection of the nativity scene came in the form of a lawsuit, which spared the manger scene statues from physical destruction.  Late Chief U.S. District Judge James B. Parsons prohibited the local authorities from discriminating against religious expression on Daley Plaza, a regular venue for political rallies. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the final order, issued in January 1990, protecting religious freedom and allowing the downtown Chicago Christmas nativity to continue.

When the “God Squad” assembles the life size nativity scene on Daley Plaza this Saturday, it will be the only traditional display of Christmas in the Chicago Loop’s public square. The area will still bustle with the Christkindlemart (an annual German-themed fair with a name that literally translates to “Christ child market”) but the giant Chicago Christmas tree that long towered over holiday festivities on the plaza has relocated.

Nativity scene in Daley Plaza, Chicago Ill. photo screenshot of news coverage

Nativity scene in Daley Plaza, Chicago Ill. photo screenshot of news coverage

The simple wooden stable housing the Holy Family tableau continues to occupy its place on Daley Plaza drawing visitors each Christmas season.  Hosted by the Daley Plaza Nativity Scene Committee, the Christmas display represents classic free speech and free exercise of faith by private citizens in the public square.

“It is an honor to be associated with the Nativity Scene in Daley Plaza and the ‘God Squad’ that donates their time each year to this project,” said Ed O’Malley, the display coordinator and President of the American Nativity Scene Committee.  “The positive message it brings to Chicago reminds us all of the true meaning of the Christmas season.”

“The First Amendment protects religious speech, equally as political speech,” explained Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that has co-sponsored the faith-based Christmas display. “If you can get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or a point of view in a public forum such as Daley Plaza, then you may likewise get on the soapbox to proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ Child!” He added that “The Daley Plaza nativity display is privately funded and sponsored, bereft of any government aid or endorsement, and therefore it is clothed and armored with the full protection of the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution.”

Thomas More Society provides legal counsel for the Daley Plaza Nativity Scene Committee and its organizers, including O’Malley, Jim Finnegan and Terry Hodges. Brejcha and his organization also assist the American Nativity Scene Committee in placing manger scenes in public places in twenty-four states, twelve state capitol buildings – Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin – and the Oklahoma governor’s mansion.The American Nativity Scene Committee has also provided manger displays for impoverished churches.

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About the Author

- Catherine "Kaye" Wonderhouse, a proud descendant of the Wunderhaus family is the Colorado Correspondent who will add more coverage, interviews and reports from this midwest area.

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