City Lights Nativity scenes set up in free-speech zone


POSTED: Saturday, December 05, 2009

The spotlights are on Mr. and Mrs. Claus, snow people and Christmas elves as Honolulu City Lights are turned on this weekend.

Strollers on the grounds of Honolulu Hale will also find a Nativity scene depicting the biblical story of Christ's birth, an unquestionably religious display in a public government venue.

Three churches combined forces to construct life-size figures of angels, shepherds, the three kings and assorted animals surrounding Joseph, Mary and Jesus, the characters in the story of the first Christmas. Texts from the Gospels will set the scenes.

It is a combination of church and state that has led to lawsuits and bans in other places. This year there are legal challenges to public Nativity scenes in Chambersburg, Pa., and Manchester, Mass.

In Honolulu a Nativity scene has been allowed on the City Hall lawn for at least 20 of the City Lights exhibit's 25 years. Other religious displays — a Hanukkah menorah, Buddha beneath a bodhi tree — have been given space on the lawn.

A challenge by the now-defunct Hawaii Citizens for Separation of State and Church was settled about 15 years ago with wisdom, or aloha spirit, that allows the tradition to continue.

The settlement established a free-speech zone open to any registered nonprofit organization. Groups may bid for five small spaces — 20 by 20 feet — and the winners are decided by lottery each year.

This year a gay support group and a water conservation organization have displays adjacent to the combined forces of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, Calvary Chapel Honolulu and Calvary Chapel West Oahu.

It is the first time the three evangelical Christian churches submitted bids, said the Rev. Clif Burchfield, of Calvary Chapel Honolulu.

“;I take a group of carolers there every year, and last year the manger scene was made out of candy canes. It was disappointing,”; Burchfield said. “;So we paid attention and found out the deadline. I sent e-mails to several other churches.”;

“;It's a very practical solution to what has become a problem in other places,”; said Ron Mathieu, executive director of First Presbyterian Church. “;Everyone has the opportunity to throw names in the hat. We are happy that we can include this to the messages people are seeing.”; The plywood cutout figures were painted by church members, and with volunteers and donated services, the Christmas Nativity scene cost less than $2,000.

With three spaces dedicated to the same story, it is the biggest Nativity display ever laid out on the City Hall grounds. But it will not rival the bright, sparkly professional displays that delight strollers, because the free-speech corner, just Diamond Head of Honolulu Hale, is a low-wattage zone. “;The city restricts us to 10 100-watt bulbs,”; Mathieu said.

And for people who do not want exposure to the Christian exhibit, it is easy to circle past.

Michael Golojuch, coordinator of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays exhibit, said the theme of this year's exhibit is “;All You Need Is Love,”; a message pertinent to Christmas, a “;message to make the holidays more open and inclusive, to people who need to open their hearts. It's a time especially hard for people who have been thrown out of their houses.”; The Christmas tree in rainbow colors has been exhibited at eight of the last nine City Lights shows.

The fifth exhibit in the free-speech zone is not about Christmas, but about trees. The Hawaii Association of Watershed Partnerships has an educational display that “;will focus on why it's critically important to protect forests as a water source,”; said Christine Ogura. “;This display will encourage the public to get involved in forested watershed protection.”;

The alliance of about 60 public and private landowners and other agencies works to keep feral hoofed animals and invasive species from destroying the mountain forests.