By The Associated Press
JACKSON — A privately funded nativity scene is on display this year inside the Mississippi Capitol.
Justin Barnard, chairman of the Mississippi-based 9/11 Remembrance Foundation, says Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant asked if his group would sponsor the display. It features a barn that’s about 4 feet tall, with figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
The scene is displayed on the first floor rotunda at the center of the Capitol, where a wide variety of groups — from arts promoters to health care providers — set up booths during legislative sessions to advocate for their causes.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper that her Wisconsin-based group wants to erect a sign near the display in Mississippi that says, among other things, “Religion is but myth and superstition.”
Bryant, who’s running for governor in 2011, said: “I think it’s ridiculous for anyone to find this offensive.”
Mississippi has seen previous challenges of religious displays on state property.
During Christmas season starting in 1977, certain office lights were left on at night to form a large cross in the 20-story Sillers state office building near the Capitol in downtown Jackson.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi filed suit over the cross in 1986. The display was ruled unconstitutional because it required state resources.
The New York City-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights sent miniature nativity scenes last month to each of the 50 governors, asking that they be placed in Capitol rotundas with other holiday decorations.
“We are paying for it because we believe it would be inappropriate to use public moneys to pay for religious symbols. But we also believe, consistent with Supreme Court rulings, that there is no constitutional prohibition banning privately funded creches from being displayed alongside secular symbols,” Catholic League president Bill Donohue said in a statement.
The nativity scene received by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is displayed in the reception area of the governor’s office, his spokesman Dan Turner said Monday.