WASHINGTON-The donkey was having a hard time standing still on the steps of the Supreme Court while the human members of the nativity scene belted out "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
"This is the first time for the donkey. He's doing good," explained Keith Wilson, of Wilson's Wild Animals, which loaned both the donkey and a two-humped camel for the nativity scene.
The live nativity complete with animals was also a first for Capitol Hill. The organizers-which included groups like Faith and Action and the Christian Defense Coalition-wanted to show people across the country that even if their municipalities or local businesses have stopped sponsoring nativity scenes out of concern for supporting one religion over another, anyone can obtain permits on public land to organize their own.
"We're seeing a growing hostility to public expression of faith, particularly at Christmas," said Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. "We don't have to retreat from the public square."
Over the last decade, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have pushed municipalities to forbid nativity displays on public property during the Christmas season. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly that that particular nativity scene was constitutional because it also contained secular symbols like a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. In several cases since, courts have deemed nativity scenes legal if they contained secular elements in addition to the overt religious scene of Jesus Christ's birth, though that hasn't been the rule.
"It spreads the Word and gets the message across," said Wilson, who stood by the jostling nativity in his camouflage hat and jean jacket, ready with his leathery hands to corral the animals when they became disoriented around all the cars and people in the city. "It's kind of a more direct way than preaching sometime."
Getting a permit to present the scene at the Supreme Court required jumping through a number of hoops with Capitol Police. Both animals had to pass blood tests, and the organizers sat through hours of meetings on the matter, Mahoney said.
Capitol Police escorted the procession of shepherds, wise men, and farm animals around the block, halting traffic. One woman, Michelle West, from Leesburg, Va., followed the procession with a dustbin to scoop up anything the animals left behind.
"I don't believe the tradition of Christmas they advertise on TV," said the volunteer pooper-scooper. "The message gets lost."
She volunteered, she explained, because it was "better than sitting at home crying because I'm out of work." She lost her job eight months ago when the contractor who employed her ran out of contracts, and she doesn't plan to buy any Christmas presents this year.
"I have days when it's questionable whether I eat," she said, crossing the street by the Senate office buildings. The animals hadn't pooped, but as the nativity scene formed again behind the court, the camel began to urinate. West said she borrowed money to come to Washington to clean up after the nativity animals.
"This is close to my heart," she said. "Why do we give gifts to each other? I thought the true meaning of Christmas was to give gifts to Jesus."