Local City Has ‘Rogue Nativity Scene’

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.

27 comments on this post.
  1. Artor:

    Gosh, how could anybody assume it’s the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, with a woman in blue & white standing over him, three guys in turbans bearing gifts, and a big star on top? That could be anyone! Why would you assume it’s Jesus?

  2. John Hinkle:

    Someone should put into the manger a red dude with horns and a tail. How would anyone know who he is?

    OT: My favorite manger scene is in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. All the manger figures are staring at an elevated television, watching the snowy noise of an untuned channel.

  3. John Pieret:

    I don’t know how Jeremiah Bannister knew the name of the baby because there is no name tag on it

    Oh, good, then. It’s just an anonymous piece of abandoned property … like junk in an abandoned lot … that the city is required to collect and dispose of? Well, get to it then! What? You don’t want to? Now why is that? Careful how you answer if you don’t want to be paying the ACLU’s legal fees!

  4. marcus:

    John Pieret @ 3 Well it is possible that it just dropped out of someone’s pocket of has been accidentally misplaced. Perhaps the city should take take it down and store it in “lost-and-found” temporarily (for a reasonable amount of time) until the owner has a chance to come pick it up. After that they can auction it off with the rest of the crap that turns up there. (If anyone wants it.)

  5. John Pieret:

    marcus @ 4:

    Well it is possible that it just dropped out of someone’s pocket of has been accidentally misplaced.

    Damn! You’re right of course. 16-inch figurines keep dropping out of pockets all the time … it’s embarrassing when they fall on the foot of a cute woman I’m chatting up and I don’t even notice!

    Did I ever tell you about the time Rex ate my college thesis?

  6. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden:

    You can’t combine gazebos and ignorance and not make me think of this true story.

    Who says violent ignorance can’t be heartwarming…?

  7. Cuttlefish:

    I’ve seen it a few places recently–it must be a new talking point–but this seems just a variation on the “plastic jewish family” that Palin wrote about, and which guests on Fox pointed out, and which commenters across the interwebs are saying.

    It’s funny–denying Jesus is now a tool of the religious right.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2013/12/15/what-would-peter-do-denying-jesus-for-political-gain/

  8. Modusoperandi:

    It’s probably just a wild manger scene. They frequently winter in gazebos.

  9. Chiroptera:

    “I don’t know how Jeremiah Bannister knew the name of the baby because there is no name tag on it ….”

    lol

    I bet when they decide to take it down, Miling suddenly remembers that baby’s name.

  10. democommie:

    I wonder how many of the idiots that drool over crèches even know what the word “manger” means..

  11. raven:

    It is progress.

    Now they have to sneak their nativity scenes in and lie about them. They know it’s illegal.

    Someday, they will end up where they belong. In the closet or the back yard.

    PS I haven’t made any progress on my nativity scene. One huge problem with them is they are trite, cliche, and most of all boring. Seen one plastic sheep, seen them all.

    Someone needs to make an all dinosaur Nativity scene. Everyone loves dinosaurs.

    There is a commercially available all Zombie nativity scene. It’s OK I guess, but doesn’t seem too seasonal.

  12. raven:

    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.

    Oh. Lost of abandoned property. How nice.

    I wouldn’t turn it in the the city Lost and Found though, although the thought did cross my mind. “Hey, someone lost a whole lot of plastic figures.” But I might be attempted to rearrange them. Kids do that anyway.

  13. busterggi:

    Since no one ‘knows’ who the baby is how about replacing it with a black baby (because although the article doesn’t say so I’m sure its white) – won’t make any difference will it?

  14. thebookofdave:

    You have a point, busterggi. I’m sure no one would object to painting the baby and father black.

  15. John Horstman:

    @raven #11: Raptor Jesus approves of all-dinosaur nativity scenes. All hail our avian overlords!

  16. Reginald Selkirk:

    “I don’t know how Jeremiah Bannister knew the name of the baby because there is no name tag on it …

    I think the perfect plan of action would be to add a name tag: “Mohammed.”

  17. Moggie:

    democommie:

    I wonder how many of the idiots that drool over crèches even know what the word “manger” means..

    Sure they do, and they’re proud that Jesus had a manger birthplace than most; in fact, it was probably the mangest!

  18. raven:

    Since no one ‘knows’ who the baby is how about replacing it with a black baby

    I have a large stuffed monkey that would fit right in.

    But a nice stuffed dinosaur would look a bit more seasonal.

  19. raven:

    27 worst nativity sets: the annual, growing list! – whyismarko
    whyismarko.c om/2011/27- worst-nativity-sets-the-annual-growing-list/‎

    Nov 29, 2011 – and, finally, in keeping with our current cultural fascination with all things zombie, i give you the etsy craftiness of: the zombie nativity. really, just …

    For anyone who wants to decorate their front yard or village square.

    I’m not the only one bored with Nativity scenes. There are multiple all Zombie sets. One is all monkeys. I’m sure there are all dog and all cat sets.

  20. raven:

    Cats Take Over Local Nativity Scene, Have No Problem Kicking Out Baby Jesus
    E! Online ‎- 4 days ago

    There is no proof that cats weren’t part of the birth of baby Jesus, so we’re not sure what all t…

    Christmas Cats Nativity …

    $29.99
    eBay

    There you go.

  21. jakc:

    @ artor

    “Gosh, how could anybody assume it’s the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, with a woman in blue & white standing over him, three guys in turbans bearing gifts, and a big star on top? ”

    Well, Matthew for one. In his gospel, he doesn’t seem to be aware that Jesus was born in a stable.

    On the other hand, Luke would probably want to know what the three astrologers are doing there

  22. Jafafa Hots:

    I wonder if anyone has ever tried this simple idea.
    At night replace the pink plastic baby in the manger with a brown plastic one.

    Then see what happens.

  23. eric:

    Seems to be a pretty simple fix. Go to the DDA with another proposal, lawyer and journalist by your side. Wait for the inevitalble rejection, then make the city aware of their constitutional responsibilities.

  24. democommie:

    @23:

    Great idea, except that they’d “table” it for consideration by the full council, ASAP–like, say May 1, 2014.

  25. Dexeron:

    Gee, Supervisor Miling doesn’t seem to remember his Matthew 10:33. ;)

  26. caseloweraz:

    John Hinkle: OT: My favorite manger scene is in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. All the manger figures are staring at an elevated television, watching the snowy noise of an untuned channel.

    That’s not the Nativity; that’s William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

  27. Wylann:

    Heh, if that’s how they want to play it, someone needs to put labels on them. I would go the Egyptian story of the birth of Horus (??). Then next to the display, put up a small placard laying the story.

    Make sure to keep all the letters to the paper for the next couple weeks for the inevitable lawsuit!

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