The fight in the U.S. is common. A town puts up a nativity scene during the holidays, and a group sues for either equal time for other religions, or to remove the nativity because it shows the local government favors Christianity.
Now the Pope has weighed in.
Pope Francis traveled to the town of Greccio, east of Rome, to visit the spot where St. Francis of Assisi started the tradition by setting up the first nativity scene in 1223, where he signed an Apostolic letter on the meaning and importance of the nativity scene.
The document says:
“With this Letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.”
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing nativity scenes in public places, saying that they were not an effort to establish or support a particular religion and also possessed what the court called “legitimate secular purposes”.
Still, even after that ruling, American groups have regularly challenged their use or have demanded equal space on public property to promote their non-religious views.
In 2014 in France, a court order to dismantle a nativity scene in a town hall because it violated the country’s secular tradition prompted a backlash, which won support from right-wing politicians.
The document went on, saying the nativity calls us to turn away from material things and focus on helping others:
“From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.”
Earlier, Francis urged people to resist the excesses of consumerism in the period leading up to Christmas, calling it a virus that attacks faith and offends the needy.