The snowy steps of the Alaska State Capitol are scheduled to see a Nativity scene during an hour-long gathering starting at 4 p.m. Friday which, in the words of a local organizer, is “for families to start their Gallery Walk in a prayerful manner.” But two Outside groups dedicated to placing Nativity scenes at as many state capitol buildings as possible are proclaiming it a victory against the so-called “war on Christmas.” The head of Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency, which has administrative oversight of the building, said the gathering is legal since a wide variety of events occur all the time, often with religious overtones, but the placement of a fixed or unattended display is illegal. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

The snowy steps of the Alaska State Capitol are scheduled to see a Nativity scene during an hour-long gathering starting at 4 p.m. Friday which, in the words of a local organizer, is “for families to start their Gallery Walk in a prayerful manner.” But two Outside groups dedicated to placing Nativity scenes at as many state capitol buildings as possible are proclaiming it a victory against the so-called “war on Christmas.” The head of Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency, which has administrative oversight of the building, said the gathering is legal since a wide variety of events occur all the time, often with religious overtones, but the placement of a fixed or unattended display is illegal. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Scene and heard: Religious freedom groups say Nativity event makes statement

State officials say happening planned for Capitol relatively common and legal.

A conservative Catholic organization known for engaging in a range of so-called “culture war” issues is helping host what it claims is the first-ever Nativity scene at the Alaska State Capitol at 4 p.m. Friday. But state officials say the claim is misleading since the scene — not necessarily the first such one — will merely be part of a legally permissible hour-long event and not an illegal fixed religious display on government property.

The display was provided by the Chicago-area American Nativity Scene, which states its mission in the “war on religious freedom” is “to provide the strongest answer possible to these attacks on religious freedom and Christmas; that being a beautiful Nativity Scene in as many public squares as possible.”

The campaign is in collaboration with the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, described as a Roman Catholic public-interest law firm, whose activities have including opposing same-sex marriage, objecting to COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups and seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

A news release issued by the Thomas More Society on Thursday, beyond making the unverifiable claim of being the first Nativity display at Alaska’s Capitol, characterizes the event as a political and legal triumph.

“A Nativity Scene will be displayed on the same property that hosts the Alaska Legislature and the Alaska Governor’s offices,” the release states.

But the gathering and display are not ground-breaking or illegal since such activities — many with religious connections — occur frequently in front of the state Capitol, said Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, which has administrative oversight of the building.

“The press release is written in a way that is meant to be misleading,” she said Thursday, adding she talked to a local organizer after reading it to clarify the plans for the display and ensure it’s legal.

“Really what it’s going to be is they’re just going to be on the steps for about an hour and clean up and leave, which is totally OK,” she said. “We don’t allow permanent religious displays at the Capitol and we never have.”

There is no law or other rule setting clear time limits on gatherings, which is potential fodder for legal challenges involving long-term displays.

Geary said it is prohibited for displays to be “left in place for any period of time,” and gatherings cannot be disruptive to public and official activities. Also, as long as participants aren’t occupying the street, which requires a permit from the city, organizers don’t need permission from legislative affairs since the site is public property.

“You can just show up,” she said. “We do like to be notified just so we can let security and maintenance know something is going on.”

The local contact for the event, Andrew Klausner, said Thursday he’s a member of the Knights Of Columbus Council in Juneau, which was contacted last year by American Nativity Scene about a placement at the Alaska State Capitol. He said his organization delayed the event until this year “to make sure did everything right and everything was legal.”

Klausner said for him it’s about having a local celebration about the meaning of Christmas tied to the start of the annual Gallery Walk rather than any larger culture war skirmishes.

“It was meant as a way for families to start their Gallery Walk in a prayerful manner,” he said.

In addition to displaying the Nativity scene provided by the national group in a manger built by locals, which is standard procedure for the displays, the gathering is scheduled to feature scripture reading and Christmas carols, Klausner said.

While the display isn’t breaking any new legal ground or setting the scene for a challenge to existing law, American Nativity Scene President Ed O’Malley said Thursday he considers it significant because his organization’s internet research and discussions with local groups, including Catholic churches, have not indicated any previous Nativity exhibits at the state Capitol.

“We believe certainly it is noteworthy to recognize we have the right to display a Nativity scene on the grounds,” he said.

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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