Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad joined Christian leaders and residents at an event last week to celebrate the first ever display of a traditional Nativity scene inside the state Capitol in Des Moines.
Five days later, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation were on hand to install a secular display of their own — a metal cutout featuring the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty gazing down at a manger holding the Bill of Rights.
Equal access to the Capitol for nonreligious displays or those celebrating other religions is what establishes the legal grounds for this Christmas Nativity. But in towns across the country, battles rage each holiday season over what sort of religious displays are allowed in public spaces — ranging from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” poster in a Texas school to a cross atop an Indiana town’s Christmas tree.
Proponents of religious displays, who have long been rankled by attempts to push religion out of the public sphere, hope Donald Trump’s election will herald new enthusiasm for Christmas cheer. The president-elect early on promised to bring back use of the greeting “Merry Christmas,” eschewing the religion-neutral phrase “Happy Holidays.”
“What you are going to see in 2017 is an increase in both private and public displays of Christmas,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom nonprofit. “In the president’s position, he has the national attention. When he goes out and says ‘Merry Christmas,’ that’s going to have a huge impact nationally. I think you are going to see tangible results.”
In the final holiday season before Mr. Trump assumes office, debate continues over separation of church and state, including which types of displays are allowed and which cross the line into giving the appearance the government is endorsing or promoting a single religion over others.