WASHINGTON -- National Park Service workers Tuesday erected a controversial Nativity scene, reinstating the creche as part of the official government-sponsored Pageant of Peace for the first time in more than a decade.
The 20-piece manger scene depicting the birth of Jesus stands on the Ellipse, behind the White House, near the 30-foot national Christmas tree.
Interior Secretary William Clark, whose agency includes the Park Service, said the decision to restore the creche was 'historically and legally appropriate.'
Inclusion of the Christian religious theme was attacked by Jewish and Protestant organizations as inappropriate and a violation of religious sensitivities.
David Gordis, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said his group continued to 'strongly object' to the construction of the creche.
Noting that the scene will be blocked off from the public by a chain link fence similar to that for the reindeer pen, Gordis said that 'a pageant celebrating peace built with a chain link fence around it suggests it has been a source of polarization rather than peace.'
'We believe the people were well-intentioned,' he said of those supporting the creche. 'But we believe the religious symbols of any group belong on private property, not on a public park, especially this one.'
He called placement of the creche 'a troubling instance of the erosion' of church-state separation.
The Nativity scene was last in the traditional display in 1973.
But Jack Fish, the Park Service's National Capital regional director, said that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last March allowing a creche to be included in the city of Pawtucket, R.I. Christmas display, he was free to restore the creche to the Park Service display.
Park Service officials said the display was purchased through donated funds by the Pageant of Peace Committee, Inc., a non-profit group which has aided the annual holiday celebration since its inception in 1954.
According to the Park Service, the Nativity scene was 'purchased through a church supply business of Sivler Spring, Md.' Its cost was approximately $3,500.
The figures are near life size and depict Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the three Wise Men and two angels. Other figures include a camel, a kneeling shepherd and sheep, a standing boy and lamb, a donkey and a cow.
Officials said the Pageant of Peace Committee will maintain the scene and store it at no cost to the government.
The Pageant of Peace is scheduled to be officially opened Thursday, with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree and a one hour program of entertainment featuring Shirley Jones.
Since 1923, when the first National Christmas Tree was lighted by President Calvin Cooldige, the tree lighting ceremony has been presided over by the president.
The Nativity scene and will be flanked by burning Yule logs, an ancient pagan ceremony devoted to the god Thor which has been appropriated by Christians as part of the holiday celebrations, and nine live reindeer from the National Zoo, commemorating the eight reindeer of Clement Moore's poem, 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,' better known by its opening line, 'Twas the night before Christmas,' and Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer made popular in a song of the 1950s.