Pope Francis has issued a call for more nativity scenes in public spaces, a move that could escalate church-state conflict in the United States.

During a Dec. 1 visit to the city of Greccio, Italy, the pope signed an apostolic letter praising the display of crèches in schools, hospitals, prisons and community squares.

“With this letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares,” Francis wrote.

Earlier in the day, the pope called nativity scenes “a simple and admirable sign of the Christian faith.”

He’s right about that – and that is exactly why the government has no business erecting them or sponsoring their displays. Public buildings and the public square belong to all of us. If such spaces are to be adorned with symbols, those symbols should represent us all and unify us as a people, not sow division by elevating one faith over all others.

What’s frustrating about the pope’s statement is that it’s unnecessary. There’s simply no need to erect sectarian symbols at the seat of government when our nation is home to so many churches. Houses of worship are the proper places for crèches and other religious symbols to be displayed – and many religious leaders are happy to take on the task.

To be sure, there may be some cases where private groups are given access to public space for displays, some of which may be religious in nature. But those displays are erected and maintained by private entities on their own time and with their own dime – they’re not government-sponsored. And when the government allows private groups to use that space, it can’t discriminate against other groups that might want that same right of access.

Thus, if a Christian church is permitted to erect a nativity scene on the town green, a Jewish group can erect a menorah, atheists can put up a “Happy Solstice” sign and so on. (The only way government can include a nativity scene is if it’s part of a larger array that includes secular symbols as well so the religious symbol is not the focal point – but I suspect the pope isn’t eager to see a bunch of crèches surrounded by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, the Grinch and the rest of the gang.)

Groups like Americans United are sometimes accused of promulgating a “war on Christmas” by insisting that government refrain from erecting religiously tinged holiday displays. Far from it. We’re defending religion, not attacking it.

Remember, when religious leaders display their sacred symbols, encourage people to venerate them and prod individuals to become more religious, they are engaging in proselytism. That’s all well and good when it's undertaken by private groups. But such actions should never be part of the duties of government.