My buddy Jeremiah Bannister lives in Dorr, Michigan, just south of Grand Rapids. He likes to take a walk down to a gazebo on public property not far from his house in the wee hours of the morning to write in his journal. But he found a couple weeks ago that there is now a big nativity scene occupying that gazebo.
He called me about it and I told him what the law says about such displays. I told him that there are two sets of rules, depending on how it came to be there. If the city put it up, then it might be legal if they throw around a few symbols that are not explicitly religious (candy canes, reindeer, Santa, snowmen, etc) to dilute the message. Two rulings from the 80s, Lynch v Donnelly and Alleghenny County v ACLU, decided that. If it’s put up by a private individual or group on public property, then the city has to have a limited public forum and allow other groups to put up holiday displays as well.
So he started making phone calls. And no one had a clue how it got there. The city said they didn’t put it up and they didn’t know who did. I put Jeremiah in touch with Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but I don’t know if they’ve done much more than ask him some follow up questions. The local newspaper did a story about it and there are some interesting things in it. Apparently they’ve now figured out how it got there:
[Township Supervisor Jeff] Miling said he later learned that the figures were placed in the gazebo by an elderly woman, who had obtained permission by the DDA [Downtown Development Authority] in the past to put up the 16-inch figures. She could not be reached for comment.
Which is what I told Jeremiah was likely the case, that someone at some point had gotten permission to put it up and has just kept putting it up every year and no one every gave it a thought before (he and his family only moved to Dorr a couple years ago). But here’s the part of the article that really jumps out at me:
“We have up star lights, winter scenes, all kinds of nonreligious holiday decorations and very little religious decoration,” Miling said.
“I don’t know how Jeremiah Bannister knew the name of the baby because there is no name tag on it … It’s funny, there are all kinds of little figures people put out, but a little baby in a manger offends people.”
Seriously. An elected official said something that stupid and disingenuous. In public. And he will get almost no criticism for it from the local residents, I’m sure. Here’s what I’d like to see happen. I’d like to see that great sign that the Springfield Area Freethinkers put up in or near the gazebo as well. I’ve got no problem with a public forum for different groups to put up their holiday displays. The problem is when Christians are given exclusive access to public land.