Politics & Government

Beshear displays Nativity scene in Governor's Mansion

The 151/2-inch tall crèche is from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The 151/2-inch tall crèche is from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear is displaying in the Governor's Mansion this holiday season a Nativity scene that governors of all 50 states received last month from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

The group, based in New York City, sent the crèches, which represent the birth of Jesus, hoping the governors would put them in public areas, preferably Capitol rotundas. Each is about 151/2 inches tall and costs about $80. Funding came from an appeal to Catholic League members.

Beshear's chief of staff, Mike Haydon, said in a Nov. 19 letter to League president William A. Donahue, which was obtained by the Herald-Leader, that he, as a Roman Catholic, appreciated the crèche and was "keenly aware of the symbolic role the crèche plays in our faith during this season."

Haydon added: "We look forward to displaying the crèche in the Governor's Mansion, and know that as thousands of Kentuckians visit the mansion this season, all will take joy in its presence and reflect on its meaning."

Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said Monday that the crèche is on display in the mansion's sunroom, which is part of the public tour.

Public tours of certain areas of the Governor's Mansion are available every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m. except on some federal and state holidays.

The state government Web site, Kentucky.gov, calls the Governor's Mansion both a private home and a public building.

Jeff Field, communications director for the Catholic League, said the group was pleased with Kentucky's response.

"It wasn't a form letter, and we are glad Kentucky will put the crèche in an area where it will be seen," he said.

More than a dozen states have indicated they will put the crèches in public areas, he said. "We've not heard any negative reaction."

Edwin F. Kagin, a Boone County attorney who is national legal director for American Atheists, said Beshear "probably handled the crèche in a legal manner."

"The Governor's Mansion is his private home," Kagin said. "If he put it in the Capitol alone or on the Capitol grounds alone, it could be a violation of a Supreme Court ruling, but it's probably OK in his private residence.

"I would not get too excited about this. It's not worth a hill dying on."

Kagin added that the crèche was "the second religious issue Beshear has gotten involved in" during the last two weeks. He was referring to Beshear's announcement last week of state tax incentives that could surpass $37 million for a $150 million biblical theme park in Northern Kentucky called Ark Encounter.

The centerpiece of the proposed park is a 500- by 75-foot wooden ark built to replicate Noah's Ark.

Beshear is not the first Kentucky governor to become involved in a crèche issue.

In 1988, a federal judge ruled it was constitutional for then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson to put a crèche on the Capitol grounds.

But the judge required the state to post a disclaimer saying it was not endorsing a religion. The state also had to put up a notice that the grounds were a public forum and available for use by other groups.