by Daniel T. Zanoza, Chairman, Springfield Nativity Scene Committee
& Executive Director, RFFM.org
In 2008, there was a great deal of controversy involving a Nativity scene which stood in the capitol building in the state of Washington. The heated controversy created by both those supporting and opposing the religious display in Olympia reached such a crescendo, state officials decided to throw all of them out. The Nativity scene standing in the Washington state capitol, the signs opposing it, a Menorah celebrating Hanukkah, signs opposing the expression of religious liberty and the crowds demonstrating against each other were just too much trouble for state officials. Subsequently, those who desired to express religious liberty and their opponents were told they could do so, but outside the confines of the Capitol building. This resulted in the individual who purchased the Nativity scene donating the display to a church and those on the far left ended up winning the battle in Washington state.
On December 1st 2008, the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee (SNSC), received permission from the Secretary of State's office to display a Nativity scene, for the first time in state history, in the state Capitol Rotunda Building. The opening day ceremony attracted a great deal of media and the religious display attracted those with dissenting opinions regarding the expression of religious liberty in the public square as well.
This year, a standing room only crowd attended the 2nd annual opening day ceremony for the Springfield Nativity Scene. It was a wonderful event. The Joyful Senior Singers + Ringers from the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur performed Christmas carols. State employees, who were on their lunch breaks, watched the event, some singing along with the choir, others were just enjoying the spirit of the Christmas season.
Again, this year, there was a Hanukkah Menorah and a sign from the Illinois ACLU supporting the First Amendment right of the SNSC to display the manger scene depicting Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. And, once again, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, put up a placard disparaging people of faith.
But, unfortunately, William J. Kelly, who is seeking the Republican nomination for state comptroller, decided--on his own--to use the Nativity Scene as a publicity stunt to advance his political campaign. I spoke with Kelly after learning of his prank and I questioned his motives for attempting to remove the atheist signage from the state Capitol Rotunda. "The sign is hate speech," said Kelly "and I decided it shouldn't be there." Now I had never spoken with this man before. He made no effort to join the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee. He did not make a donation to the SNSC or to the Chicago-based Thomas More Society who originally underwrote the Nativity Scene display. And, to my knowledge, he had no contact with the Illinois Family Institute, Business Men In Christ or Isringhausen Imports of Springfield who financially supported this year's Nativity Scene. Mr. Kelly did not attend the opening day "unveiling" ceremony this year or last. But he took it upon himself to generate publicity for his own personal political agenda.
I wish I didn't have to write this because the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee members agreed we were not looking for controversy. Indeed, we are blessed because Illinois is the only state which has a Nativity Scene standing in its state capitol.
In 20 years of working to advance the cause of the pro-family movement, I have learned there are those who genuinely care about the issues they spend so much of their time and money supporting. Unfortunately, there are also those who are opportunists who jump on the pro-family bandwagon to advance their own agenda. It is apparent Mr. Kelly represents the latter. Just imagine if someone walked into the state Capitol Rotunda Building, picked up the Nativity scene and started to walk out of the door with it because they don't agree with the fact it is there. This is exactly what Kelly did when he tried to remove the atheist group's signage--which I personally believe is repugnant, but they have the same First Amendment right to be there as we do.
In fact, last year, the atheist sign was stolen after hours and the organization played up the incident to their advantage, saying it was a demonstration of Christian intolerance. Kelly's actions played right into the hands of those who oppose the right of Christians to express their faith in the public square. Kelly apologized to me for his actions and it is a possibility he acted before he thought. But one thing's for sure. He knew he would get publicity and his campaign manager was touting Kelly's actions to the conservative and mainstream media. I have learned, he even announced on Tuesday this was his intent (to come to the Capitol on Wednesday). Kelly made the news in central Illinois, in Chicago and the story was even briefly alluded to on the O'Reilly Factor on FOX News.
Last year, after the Joyful Senior Singers + Ringers choir from Decatur performed near the Nativity scene, they acted in a Christlike manner regarding the atheist signage. They made a circle around the sign, holding hands while they prayed for those whose hearts and minds shut the Lord out of their lives. I believe this is how Christians should act. In fact, it is an answer to the question: What Would Jesus Do?
But Kelly acted selfishly, not thinking about the possible ramifications of his actions beyond his own political agenda. Of course, the media ran to the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation for comment. The dominant media did not come to me as Chairman of the SNSC or to any other members of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee for our reaction to Kelly's political prank. Did Kelly honestly believe he was going to be allowed to walk out the door of the Capitol Rotunda, carrying away one of the displays on exhibit in the center of the capitol floor? The fact is, in order to view the atheist sign, one must walk behind the Nativity scene. The message on the sign is hostile and the co-president of the Wisconsin-based atheist group admits as much. I personally believe the atheist signage publicly demonstrates intolerance and hatred and people should see it as it stands in juxtaposition to the message of love, forgiveness and hope which the Nativity scene represents.
As a Christian, I accepted Mr. Kelly's apology. But, at the same time, I question his judgment. The Nativity scene is NOT about controversy. It is a celebration of the birth of the Savior of mankind. It is not a political tool to be used by anyone, no matter how conservative they claim to be. As Chairman of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee, my message to the atheist group is clear. I did not--and do not--support the actions of Kelly. I would also like to let the Secretary of State's office and the Capitol Police know the SNSC does not support such actions. In fact, we abhor them.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Kelly. May God bless you and keep you well.
And thanks to the hundreds of people who helped support the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee in many ways.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL from the SPRINGFIELD NATIVITY SCENE COMMITTEE.
Related article: Choir Performing at Site of Springfield Nativity Scene Wows Overflow Crowd at Capitol, Despite Presence of Offensive Atheist Signage by Dan Gura (SNSC member) posted 12/12/08 http://rffm.typepad.com/republicans_for_fair_medi/2008/12/choir-performing-at-site-of-springfield-nativity-scene-wows-overflow-crowd-at-capitol-despite-presen.html
Photo from 2008
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