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The Famous Pittsburgh Creche

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Given the constant media refrain of “holy wars” in the Middle East beating in the background, we sometimes forget that elsewhere, in the most unremarkable places, religious “battles of pinciple” quietly rage. Once such battle is being quietly waged in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I just got back from a trip to Pittsburgh. While I was there my hosts took me to view the downtown holiday lights, including a stop at the famous Pittsburgh creche.

The Pittsburgh creche is a larger-than-life depiction of the nativity scene, on display outside of the U.S. Steel Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh. The creche is certainly impressive. As a work of art it is lovely and masterfully executed.

But the Pittsburgh creche is also notable for being the only authorized replica of the Vatican’s creche. According to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s website:

    “The creche features larger-than-life-size renderings of the Holy Family, the magi, an angel, shepherds, animals and a stable, along with a professional sound and lighting system. Pietro Simonelli, sculptor of the original Vatican creche, created the figurines, which have lifelike hands, feet and faces made from clay and weather-proofed papier-mache placed on a wooden frame. The stable design is also taken directly from Vatican blueprints.”

The same website also describes the purpose of a creche:

    “The word ‘creche’ comes from the French meaning ‘manger’ or ‘crib’ and commonly refers to the scene of Christ’s birth. *** The first definition of a creche written in 1619 said that a creche is ‘to bring to life the events of the birth of Christ so that all who view the scene may personally share the wonder of those who originally saw it.’ It is a ‘visual sermon’ intended to motivate us to read the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth and meditate on their meaning for our lives.”

OK, you say, it is definitely a religious symbol and with the Vatican connection, a high profile one at that. But where is the religious battle?

Well, Pittsburgh is also known for being the locale of a famous challenge against a creche brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1980’s. The challenge ended up in the United States Supreme Court:

    In the 1980s, the ACLU sued Allegheny County over a creche put up each year on the grand staircase at the county courthouse, and in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the display couldn’t be placed on public property.

Of course, the 1980’s creche was actually a different creche from the one today. And the current creche is on PRIVATE property, not public property. Therefore, it is not legally prohibited from being displayed.

But doesn’t it strike you as more than coincidence that such a notable religious symbol would be commissioned and placed in the very city famous for a court battle that banned display of another creche more than a decade ago?

Coincidence? I think not. This is a religious battle — subtle, but still a battle.

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  • I don’t see any issue at all. The public/private distinction is being honored, so there is no establishment of religion occurring. Furthermore, if a creche is part of a seasonal display that includes secular symbols and/or symbols from other religious traditions, it is not a violation of the establishment clause to include it anyway.

    The word creche may have started out with a religious meaning (as did holiday), but that association has long been attenuated.

    crèche n.

    1. A representation of the Nativity, usually with statues or figurines.
    2. A hospital for foundlings.
    3. Chiefly British. A day nursery.

    [French, from Old French cresche, crib, of Germanic origin.]

    – – From http://www.dictionary.com.

  • Mac Diva didn’t see an issue at all but the fight had to be made to keep it that way. Were it not for the court case, the County of Allegheny and my tax dollars would be going into the public display of this icon. As a non-Christian, I don’t want to allow The State to use this as a mechanism for the promotion of a specific religion clouded in the rhetoric of tradition.

    The County argued that because their display included a Jewish menorah and had a sign that spoke about “symbols of liberty” that it was OK. But they left out symbols of Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Paganism and many, many others. And even if the display did include all those others, the display would still be promoting religious belief and not addressing Agnosticism and Atheism.

    As it is, the creche is now on private property and privately funded and I have no problem with that in and of itself. But I can’t help but think that the tens of thousands of dollars spent of this idolatry could have been much better spent on actually doing the work that Jesus was talking about; helping people in need.

  • Jay

    The only problem, Geis, is that there is nothing legally stopping anyone from organizing a public display of Vishnu meditating or Zoroaster kicking a daeva in the crotch. It’s just that no one particularly wants it. There’s no prohibition in the constitution from outward expressions of religious devotion (indeed, if anything, the founders wanted any religion in the public square), and there’s nothing that says all religions have to be included.

    If you’re offended, then that’s too bad, to be blunt. The constitution doesn’t protect you from that, either.