For the past week, one Michigan Senator has set up a nativity display every morning on the State Capitol lawn. Senator Rick Jones has set up the display every Christmas season for the last four years.
Rick Jones is a boisterous senator who represents the district west of Lansing. Jones zips up his MSU jacket and opens up the back hatch of his wife’s SUV. The display is too big to fit into his car. In the four years that Jones has been setting up the display, people have taken notice.
“The first day I set it up, I had people say ‘You’ve got Mary on the wrong side, last year you had Mary on the other side,’” Jones said with a laugh.
The figures in the manger scene – Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus - come from Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth. The “barn” was made by a friend of Senator Jones. All told, the display is about waist-high.
Jones’ holiday tradition started as a response to a controversy about winter displays at the Capitol. The winter display that started it all? The Snaketivity.
“I felt that if we were gonna have a Snaketivity on the lawn, we should have a Christian nativity,” Jones said.
In 2014, the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple erected a controversial tableau on the Capital lawn. They called it Snaketivity. It was a big plastic snake wrapped around a sign that said, “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.” It was a commentary on how church and state should be separate. A religious group wanted to put out a nativity in response, but was short on time. Enter Senator Jones.
“I felt challenged and I wanted to make sure that we had a nativity up also,” he said.
There are ground rules for putting up a display. Permits are given out by the Michigan Capitol Commission. Displays can’t be left overnight, so Jones has to set it up in the morning and then take it down at night. There are regulations about the size of the display. Which is why Jones only puts out Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus – no room for the Wise Men at this inn. But anyone can put up a display if they apply for a permit.
John Truscott is a spokesperson for the Capitol Commission. He said the displays are a matter of free speech.
"We are, obligated, under our constitution, to honor the free speech of people who want to make a statement, whether it’s religious or otherwise,” said Truscott.
Two years ago, The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster also got a spot on the Capitol lawn with Snaketivity and Jones’ nativity. Jones is comfortable with sharing the space.
“We’re simply showing the light,” he said. “The snake people want to show the dark. And that’s okay. This is America.”
But this year, no Snaketivity. No Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
“They did not pull a permit. Apparently they got froze out,” said Jones.
This year, the nativity only shares the lawn with a Menorah.
While Jones only has a year left as a Senator, he hopes it won’t be the end of the nativity.
“I’m hoping to hand this off to somebody else who wishes to do this when I’m termed out,” he said.