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Another Dorr Nativity Scene Update

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.

Comments

  1. John Pieret says

    It would be an open question whether that would be a legal loophole they can use.

    Especially if they only alter the lease after this controversey arose and cannot give a coherent reason why they lease it for only 11 months. One thing I’ve learned in my years of practice is that it’s one thing to make a weak argument to a judge, it’s quite another to make one that insults his or her intelligence.

  2. Michael Heath says

    Jeremiah Bannister’s statement:

    No one religion should be given exclusive access to public government property for the expression of their beliefs as this would be an implicit, if not explicit, government endorsement of the views being expressed.
    [Heath struck-out ‘public’ and added both bold uses of the word ‘government’.

    I think the word ‘government’ rather than ‘public’ is a more descriptive word to better inform readers. I realize the courts appropriately use the word ‘public’ in this context. However, I think that term goes whoosh over most readers heads when it comes to distinguishing the difference between the government, both government workers and government-owned/controlled property, versus individuals. So readers never appreciate the proper framing for such arguments. They instead falsely perceive this as a battle between the majority and a tiny minority.

    Adding the term ‘government’ in front of the word ‘endorsement’ also better clarifies the parties involved.

    One of the biggest reasons I observe non-Christianists take a pro-Christian endorsement is their misguided belief we live in a simple democracy rather than a liberal democracy.

    So even if they’re not yearning for religious endorsement from the government, they accept such without squawking because they falsely conclude the, ‘majority rules’. They fail to understand in this context the Constitution both limits government power and obligates that same government to protect certain individual rights.

    Use of the term “public” rather than government feeds into this misunderstanding. In spite of ‘public’ being a narrower and more accurate definition than using ‘government’ in this context.

  3. raven says

    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.

    This is one of my minor quarrels with the whole idea of atheist Holiday displays.

    They aren’t always very imaginative. (To be fair, neither are the xian ones. A bunch of plastic kitsch they bought at Walmart.) I did think that Herod and his dead babies one in Florida at least showed some flickers of imagination.

    1. Maybe Dorr could steal the Florida idea. The slaughter of boy babies by Herod is as biblically correct as any Nativity scene. He could put it up next to the plastic animals one.

    2. An all dinosaur Nativity scene. Everyone loves dinosaurs.

    3. One group did a Tree of Knowledge one year. IIRC, they had a Holiday tree and hung famous books of knowedge on it as ornaments.

    4. A display with all the year end Holidays that the xians coopted. Xmas was a Pagan holiday that they stole. The Pagans are stealing it back. Winter Solstice, Festivus, Kwanza, Mithras birthday, and all the rest.

    5. Or just a Pagan display. Paganism isn’t atheism but the xians won’t know that. Or care.

    6. A display explaining what the year end and Winter Solstice actually is. It’s astronomy. The shortest day of the year. Axial tilt. To the ancients, it was when they sun started to disappear and things got cold. A hard time. And then it stopped and the days started getting longer. A big deal when you are a subsistence farmer in a northern latitude. If that didn’t happen, everyone would die.

    7. Anything else? I’m running out of ideas here. Making public religious displays has never been one of my talents.

  4. raven says

    I do know why atheists and others resort to placards.

    It takes a certain amount of money, time, and skills to craft a Holdiay display. You can’t buy athesit Holiday kitsch at Walmart. Yet. (I’m sensing a commercial opportunity here though.) They do sell Halloween stuff.

    I should know. My all dinosaur holiday display has gone nowhere in several years.

    It strikes me that Jeremiah is all by himself here and could use some help. The churches have an advantage in that they have mobs of bored and wild eyed fanatic followers.

  5. raven says

    Then again, you don’t want to spend too much effort on an atheist Holiday display. In a place like Dorr they would last a few minutes or hours before being vandalized by the xians. Which is OK

    Price of an atheist display = a few dollars and hours.

    Xians behaving like violent, mindless fascists = Priceless

    For any xians reading this. here are your premade excuses.

    It was a false flag operation.
    Atheists do it too.
    You can’t prove that it was done by xians.

    And the all purpose one. They weren’t True Xians.

  6. says

    “Right now, we do not have a policy on residents leaving items on township picnic tables,” Miling said.

    Sure they do: “If it’s a nativity display, leave it alone” is their policy. Updating and clarifying it is going to be a bitch.

  7. says

    Paganism isn’t atheism but the xians won’t know that. Or care.

    Well, to xtians, paganism and atheism are intimately connected via the works of Epicurus and Lucretius; both of which are seen as arguing against the gods and specifically the christian god. Not arguing in favor of other gods, but arguing that the gods are irrelevant to our existence – which is a terrifying concept to a xtian.

    If pagans did a display that was all about the Greek or Roman pantheon, that would probably make the xtians wince a bit but they’d be more comfortable dealing with co-delusionists. Hitting them with the norse gods is my favorite. “Thor: thursday is his day.” We celebrate it 52 times a year, baby!

  8. says

    Xians behaving like violent, mindless fascists = Priceless
    For any xians reading this. here are your premade excuses.

    A kind and convenient atheist display would include information brochures of premade excuses that xtian vandals could use. Along with the prominent suggestion that they get atheist anarchist nihilists to do their dirty work.

  9. says

    I only seek an equal right to express my own.

    Well, there’s the problem right there. He’s already got the equal right to express his own. If someone forgets to put it up next year, he can put up his own Nativity scene.

  10. says

    If the gummint leases it 11 months out of the year and somebody wants to put up something on the
    Feast of Our Lady of Usurious CC Interest in July, then what?

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