The battle over a nativity scene in Dorr, Michigan, a small suburb of Grand Rapids, continues to garner heat. My friend Jeremiah Bannister started asking questions about the display, which showed up in a public gazebo, a couple weeks ago and the response has been exactly what we would expect. And the township seems intent on doubling down:
On one recent evening, more than 30 young people and adults from New Life Community Church held a candlelight prayer vigil at the gazebo. One subject of their prayer was Bannister himself.
On Saturday morning, Dec. 21, another group planned to hold a Christmas caroling event at the gazebo.
Miling said there has also been talk of expanding the nativity display in the future.
“I have to thank Jeremiah,” Miling said. “He gets them off their butts and gets them moving. It’s a good thing.”
So they might try to make it even bigger. Gotta stick it to the atheist troublemaker, dontchaknow. Jeremiah, meanwhile, put out a statement, which I helped him craft, dispelling the false narrative that local media and residents have formed over the situation:
There has been a fair amount of distortion and false assumption in both the media coverage and public response to my raising questions about the nativity scene that now stands in the gazebo on public property in Dorr, so please allow me to clear up a few things.
First, I am not “outraged” over the nativity scene being there. Second, I have not demanded that it be taken down, nor do I intend to do so. I went to the city to ask how it came to be there because, under Supreme Court precedents, whether it was put up by the city or by a private group or individual with the city’s permission determines the rules that must be followed.
We know now that the nativity scene was put up by a resident of the city. By law, then, the public space it occupies must be treated as what the courts call a “limited public forum.” That means that other groups and individuals in the community must be allowed to put up similar displays to express their own beliefs and holiday traditions. And I believe this is a fair and reasonable expectation. No one religion should be given exclusive access to public property for the expression of their beliefs as this would be an implicit, if not explicit, endorsement of the views being expressed.
To that end, I will be applying for a permit to put up a small display, a placard, on the site that will celebrate the winter solstice, which is the basis for all of the religious holidays that have been celebrated over the eons during this time of year. The placard will not contain criticism of religion but rather a positive Humanist message of reason, compassion and the love of learning.
It has been a bit frightening, though, being portrayed as an outraged atheist in a small Christian community battling (bullying?) a grandmother and her nativity scene – anyone wishing to see truly outraged people need only read online comment sections, most all littered with angry and even threatening responses to both me and my family. As a law-abiding citizen, a husband, a father of four kids, and an active volunteer in the community, the Fox 17 report was more than a bit disheartening – it was totally uncalled for.
In the end, and contrary to many of the more – yes – outrageous comments on the websites of the media outlets that have covered this story, I have no desire to violate anyone’s right to express their beliefs, including on public property. I only seek an equal right to express my own. I hope the city will do the right thing and follow the law so that we may all live in a community that values equality and inclusiveness, especially during the holiday season.
It’s too late to do anything for this year, but Jeremiah plans on applying for a permit to put up a placard at the gazebo next year during December. The problem is that the township has no policy at all on these things:
Whether or not Bannister will be given such a permit, or even needs one, has not yet been determined by the township.
“Right now, we do not have a policy on residents leaving items on township picnic tables,” Miling said.
The woman who put up the nativity scene asked for permission to put up the display a few years ago, but there is no procedure in place for handling such situations. There is no application or process for deciding. Apparently she just asked them if she could and they said yes, so she’s been putting it up ever since. The township now has a few months to put that process in place, but their options are limited by the law (though they may not know that, or care). They cannot make such decision on the basis of the religious or non-religious viewpoint being expressed and they have to make it open to everyone.
The other possible option, which I suspect they will try, is this. The land the gazebo is under is privately owned but leased by the township all year long. They may well alter the lease so that the township only controls it 11 months of the year and, during December, it magically is no longer public property. It would be an open question whether that would be a legal loophole they can use.