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Nativity Scene

The police won't cut baby Jesus any slack. When Rita Warren, a 69-year-old gadfly religious activist who lives in the nearby Virginia suburbs, pulls up to the entrance of the U.S. Capitol, the guards play it by the high-security book. They poke a metal detector under the chassis of her 1981 Oldsmobile station wagon. A bomb-sniffing dog checks out the almost-lifesize figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, a shepherd and two sheep crammed inside the car.

"How you doin', Rich?" Warren calls out to one guard. "Have a nice weekend?"

"It was quiet," says Rich. "The baby was sick. Flu."

The Olds is clean. Rich gives the okay, and Warren glides through the checkpoint, as she has been doing regularly for seventeen years.

It's Christmastime in Washington. Congress has adjourned, lunch reservations can easily be had even at the places Larry King frequents, the national Christmas tree glimmers across the street from the White House. And Rita Warren, the ever-affable crèche lady, is making her annual nuisance of herself. In her own quiet way, Warren is as much a fixture in Washington as David Gergen. Most of the year, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can find her on the East Portico steps of the Capitol. A six-foot Jesus mannequin by her side, her boombox blaring religious music, she showers tourists and members of Congress with God's apolitical love.

That's the basic June-to-September routine. In December, Warren returns to the Capitol for a special two-week holiday run. The Jesus mannequin gives way to a ten-piece crèche, which she augments with a jumbo "Happy Hanukkah" card, a battery-operated lighted wreath and a wooden sign that reads "JESUS OF NAZARETH: LOVE, HOPE, PEACE" in Russian and English. Jim Nabors croons "The Lord's Prayer," and Luciano Pavarotti, Kathie Lee Gifford and Mario Lanza belt out seasonal hymns from the boombox. On Christmas Eve, Warren and her 12-year-old granddaughter Jessica keep a noon-to-midnight nativity scene vigil. "I honor God, and what better place?" says Warren, an Italian immigrant and lapsed Catholic who belongs to no particular congregation. "The whole world comes here, and the whole world sees it."

The holiday season is to Rita Warren what sweeps week is to a TV executive: a crucial chance to grab lots of people's attention. Besides her Capitol crèche, she owns four smaller nativity scenes that she likes to Offer for display in places presided over by people who dread being dragged into freedom-of-religion brouhahas. Rita drags them in regardless. She is currently involved in high-profile controversies with both the state of Virginia and Fairfax County. In 1995 she was allowed to place a crèche in the Virginia Statehouse. In December 1996, though, a legislative committee rescinded permission for that year, citing security reasons and the "historic and aesthetic qualities" of the statehouse. Governor George Allen promptly declared there was "room at the inn" for Warren's crèche in the waiting room outside his office. Similarly, last year Warren got approval to put a crèche outside the Fairfax County Government Center, which earned her live TV news coverage. Now, the county has tightened its regulations, declaring only county residents can file crèche applications.

Such nativity scene battles are, of course, a holiday hot-potato tradition. In mid-December in Pennsylvania, for example, two Republican commissioners had been trying to fulfill an election pledge to put up a nativity scene at the Allegheny County Courthouse until the Ku Klux Klan said they wanted to contribute a cross. A similar case in Columbus, Ohio, inspired the 1995 Supreme Court decision on religious display. Under that ruling, a display such as a crèche is generally considered a protected form of free speech so long as it's been erected in a recognized public forum, under the auspices of a private group. If, however, all petitioners--be they the Ku Klux Klan or Rita Warren--aren't given equal access to that forum, or if the government plays any role in sponsoring a religious display, there are grounds for a lawsuit. In short, package your nativity scene as a celebration of the First Amendment, as opposed to Christmas, and you're in good constitutional shape. Curiously, the evolution of nativity scene law has had a minor-miracle side effect: Rita Warren and the ACLU have become allies. With her homey crèches, Warren established a public-forum precedent at the Virginia Statehouse and the Fairfax County Government Center. And once a free speech door is forced ajar, the ACLU likes to see it remain open. The Virginia ACLU is now coming to Warren's defense in court.

Through nearly thirty years of grass-roots activism, Warren, who keeps her distance from the Christian Coalition and what she calls religious "fanatics," has perfected a kill-'em-with-kindness approach. In 1969, she played a key role in reinstituting silent prayer in the Massachusetts public schools. In 1983, she screened Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth on the steps of the U.S. Capitol every weekend for six months in an attempt to get NBC to rescind its decision not to show the film that Easter, as they had in previous years. "She has always been a sort of cheerful civil militant," says Barney Frank, one of several congressmen of varying political stripes who consider her a friend.

No question, Warren has more friends than money. She lives with her two adult daughters (one severely retarded, the other a divorced mother of two children) in a modest two-bedroom apartment. A retired television factory worker, Warren lives on her $200 monthly Social Security check and the grace of God.

God talks to Rita Warren, even in her sleep. One morning, at 3 a.m., He whispered "Oldsmobile" in her ear. The next day Rita walked into the nearest Oldsmobile dealership and convinced the owner to give her a free car. It was God, too, who told her to set up shop on the Capitol steps, so that passersby might gaze upon her Fiberglas baby in a manger and think, "This is Christmas." Apparently He has whispered in Rita's ear again.

"The White House. That's gonna be next," she declares gleefully. "They have the Christmas tree. They should have a nativity scene."

By Tom Dunkel