A Nativity scene will once again appear in the state Capitol — but this year it won't be up for Christmas.
Atheist groups had already snatched up all available display space on the Capitol's ground floor for the week of Dec. 21, forcing the Nativity scene to come down a week earlier than it did last year.
"They have proved our point that all speech is welcome, except Christian," said Martin Cannon, an attorney with the Thomas More Society in Omaha, which sponsors the Nativity scene. "We would have shared our space with them, but they are not willing to do the same.”
Chris Clements, who is organizing the atheist display, said the goal was never to block out the Nativity scene.
"We needed as much space as we could for all the groups that are interested," Clements said.
That includes seven groups from Lincoln, Omaha and Offutt Air Force Base.
The Nativity scene, also called a crèche, goes on display at noon Friday with a celebration featuring string music and comments by Cannon. Lt. Gov. Mike Foley is scheduled to attend.
Last year was the first time the Thomas More Society sponsored a crèche in the Capitol, and some people asked whether the display violated the concept of separation of church and state. But those who oversee the Capitol allowed it because the Nativity scene is sponsored by private groups.
"The Capitol is not a religious building per se. We're open to all citizens of all faiths," building administrator Bob Ripley said last year.
Last year's display remained in place through Christmas, but this year the group will pack it up Dec. 18.
The following week, the atheist coalition has permission to install four tables and 20 easels in the ground-floor commons area, said Roxanne Smith, the Capitol's tourism supervisor.
The groups are calling their event "Reason This Season."
The Lincoln Atheists' table will feature scale models of a church, a wall and federal government buildings to demonstrate the separation of church and state, said Brian Aden, the group's president. Another group will present a "reason tree," he said.
The area surrounding the Capitol information desk is regularly used for political and educational displays.
Smith said reservations are usually made in week-long blocks, but there's no written policy for how early groups can begin booking the space or how much they can use at the same time.
This year, the atheist groups requested the spots in August, about a month before the Thomas More Society, she said.
Aden said he doesn't oppose the Nativity scene, and to his knowledge, no one from the Thomas More Society had asked the atheist coalition to relinquish one of its spots.
If they did, he said, "We would talk to them about it."
He said he doesn't know whether the displays will return next year.
"We want to see what kind of response we get."