11/30/2011 06:44 pm ET

Nativity Scene Comes To Life Before The Supreme Court

WASHINGTON -- Christmas came early to the Supreme Court Wednesday when roughly 20 members of the Nativity Project, a nationwide campaign to "celebrate religious freedom," displayed a live version of the Nativity just steps in front of the courthouse. There was Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the Three Kings, a camel and a donkey (the latter two being the real thing).

The group began by marching around the Supreme Court building to the front, where they sang classic Christmas carols such as "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." Leading the march was Rev. Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action in the Nation's Capital, and Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. Their two groups co-sponsor the Nativity Project.

"We need to remind even our elected and appointed officials that work here on Capitol Hill that the true meaning of Christmas is the giving of the Savior, Christ the Lord," Schenck told The Huffington Post. "We exercise our First Amendment rights to express our religious beliefs, and we do that because if you don't exercise your rights, you lose your rights."

Mahoney told HuffPost that the Nativity Project has found "creative ways" to work around a Supreme Court ruling that held spending public money on Nativity scenes violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.

"Individual citizens can go apply for permits," he said, pulling out the one that the Christian Defense Coalition obtained from the U.S. Capitol Police Board. He said it allows his group to "circumvent what we believe are these unjust decisions by state, local and federal courts."

"How can any local court say it's not constitutional," Mahoney continued, "when we have a permit to do it in front of the highest court in the land?"

In fact, Mahoney's permit, which he said was not difficult to obtain, allowed a group of up to 60 individuals to participate in a three-hour march, along with live animals. Mahoney said supporters in other cities are applying for permits to set up their own live Nativity scenes.

The whole demonstration lasted roughly 30 minutes, catching the eye of many passing spectators with some opting to join the procession.

"We're telegraphing a message to the country: If we can do this in front of the United States Supreme Court, you can certainly do it in front of your county court, your city hall and your public square," Schenck said. "We want people across the country to be encouraged by this and realize they too can express their First Amendment constitutionally protected privileges."

The allocation of public money is not the only factor courts use to determine whether a religious display on public property is constitutional. Courts also ask whether reasonable observers of the display would see the display and think government was endorsing a particular religion. Just last month, the justices let stand a lower court's decision that used this rationale to deem unconstitutional a series of crosses placed along public highways in Utah by a privately organized police association.

Just in case any reasonable observer would think the government was endorsing today's performance, one restless camel made sure to leave a puddle of urine right in front of the Supreme Court.