Nativity scenes and The Constitution

Published: Dec. 5, 2019 at 9:38 PM CST
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Thursday morning, an organization of Catholic women set up the first requested nativity scene in the state Capitol. Now, a debate is underway over whether a state can represent one faith over another.

Throughout the Capitol, the sights and sounds of the holidays are filling the hallways. And the natural pairing for a giant Christmas tree, is a nativity scene.

"North Dakota's been always allow you to practice the First Amendment able to have freedom of religion, which is great," said Laurel Ann Dukart, North Dakota Catholic Daughters of the Americas.

While many welcome the holiday season, some may not welcome a nativity scene. The organization responsible for the Capitol nativity is also responsible for similar scenes in more than 20 other state capitols.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who took part in the blessing, said he doesn't think this is a matter of separation of Church and State

"That's something that's been in the court system forever. If that's done, then the menorah can't be here. In other words, that's where I get concerned. Are people being treated equally?" Jaeger said.

In recent years, District Court Judges have ordered that other religious symbols be removed from public buildings. Including tablets of the 10 Commandments removed from Court Houses. Constitutional professors say most judges don't use a strict separation of church and state test.

"Different judges will vary or have varying degrees of combination for separating church and state. So that really is going to potentially vary on who the judge is and what the context of the nativity scene is," said University of North Dakota Assistant Professor Benjamin Kassow.

What makes this nativity scene different is the blessing featured elected officials. Jaeger said he is partaking as a Christian, and not as Secretary of State.

In reference to representing other faiths, 77% of North Dakotans are Christian, according to the PEW Research Center. Twenty percent have no faith at all. For the less than 1% of North Dakotans who are Jewish, there will be a menorah placed in the same hallway as the nativity scene.

Facilities personnel said that not only can other religious symbols be requested to be presented at the Capitol, but the requests don't have to come from recognized religions.

Capitol officials said the process for items to be considered "all or nothing," adding space availability as a factor.

Other faiths can be featured here, but only the menorah and the nativity Scene received such a request.

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