BOSTON (State House News Service) – Rep. Jim Lyons got a Christmas surprise last week, in the form of a green light to host a nativity scene display in the State House.
Actually, the Andover Republican was surprised twice — first, in November, when he was told he couldn’t put up a nativity on the State House lawn. Then, last Friday, he got word the Bureau of the State House had approved his application for a display inside the building after all.
The effort grew into a matter of “religious liberty, freedom of expression, First Amendment, all kinds of things tied into one,” Lyons said.
“That wasn’t where I was going at the beginning,” he said. “I was simply going, can we put up a nativity scene? I thought the answer would be — to be honest with you — yes.”
Lyons said his request for an outdoor nativity was denied because religious displays are not allowed. He then asked to put the nativity scene up inside and reached out to lawyers at the Thomas More Society, who said they would take the matter to court if permission was not granted.
Bureau of the State House policies state “only official state functions” are allowed on the State House grounds or exterior spaces.
The society said it had secured permission for nativity displays in capitol buildings in states including Illinois, Georgia, Mississippi, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Missouri and Rhode Island.
The display went up in the Great Hall Thursday morning, consisting of figures provided by the American Nativity Scene Committee, a kneeler Lyons’ wife Bernadette borrowed from a friend, and evergreen branches from the Christmas trees Lyons sells at his family’s floral and ice cream shop.
“Our message today is that this is about what Christmas has always been, to us as Christians and I think to a lot of non-Christians also,” Lyons said, adding, “This is about that message, the message of love, hope and joy.”
Lyons said he wants to make the nativity display an annual event and hopes to make the creche available for public viewing for a longer period of time — it was scheduled to be up for three hours Thursday — in the future.
That plan caught the attention of the Boston Atheists, an organization that installed its own secular banner on the Boston Common Thursday, with the message, “Joy to the world! This holiday season take care of yourself, of each other & of the world.”
“If the good Representative feels he must pursue a similar action next year, we’ll not oppose him with anything so divisive as a lawsuit,” the group’s officers said in a statement. “Instead, we’ll look to him to support our organization’s efforts to place a celebratory statue of the Satanic Baphomet in the State House in the same week, if even for a single day. The values represented by Baphomet are ones we can ALL celebrate, whatever our philosophical views: the importance of pluralism; the importance of rationalism; and the ever-present need for there to be always in society persons with the courage to speak truth to power, including and perhaps especially in the form of blasphemy.”