Two very different holiday displays will share the grounds of the Michigan State Capitol next week: a traditional Christian Nativity and an exhibit by the Satanic Temple. The situation has brought controversy — and energized Christians who realized that a planned Nativity was in danger of being canceled.
The story drew intense attention after it emerged that there was a chance the Capitol grounds might host only a Satanic holiday display during the Christmas season, because plans for a Christian display didn't take into account Michigan's rules.
The Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple had sought to put up its exhibit as a message about religious freedom and inclusiveness, as a counterweight to the Christian Nativity (the group is putting up a similar display at Florida's Capitol rotunda).
The Satanic Temple received official approval for its holiday display after the Capitol staff consulted the state attorney general's office.
"It's a First Amendment right," says Capitol Facility Director Dan Brocklehurst.
The permit for the Christian Nativity had been filed from outside Michigan. But the state's rules require Capitol holiday displays to be taken down by 11 o'clock every night. When the organizer realized he wouldn't be able to comply, "they kind of withdrew their request," Brocklehurst says.
That left the field to the Satanic Temple, feeding the impression in some quarters that the state had decided that instead of a Nativity scene, its grounds would host a Satanic exhibit that features a snake and the words "The Greatest Gift is Knowledge."
"A lot of the Christians felt we denied the Nativity scene," Brocklehurst says. But he adds that the situation changed when people realized the out-of-state permit was at risk of being withdrawn because of a lack of local support.
Led by state Sen. Rick Jones, who said earlier this week that he was "a little outraged that a Satanic group has decided to steal a Christian holiday," a group of volunteers stepped forward to put up a donated Nativity scene and take it down each day.
A Christian Nativity will now be erected on the Capitol grounds, starting Friday morning. The Satanic Temple's display will join it on Sunday.
Next to the displays, Capitol staff will erect signs reminding visitors that "this exhibit is not owned, maintained, promoted, supported by or associated with" the state of Michigan, Brocklehurst says.
Both of the exhibits will also be placed where security cameras will let Capitol staff keep an eye on them.
"We want to be sure they're both secure and not subject to vandalism while they're on Capitol grounds," says Brocklehurst, who acknowledges that the dueling displays have put Michigan officials "in new territory."
According to the Satanic Temple's website, the group's mission is "to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people," while embracing "practical common sense and justice."
As for its mission in Michigan, Jex Blackmore, director of the Satanic Temple's Detroit chapter, says the Christmas display "draws attention to a policy that's clearly intended to support the display of mainstream religious iconography while excluding others."
She adds that the Satanic Temple is hoping the holiday display episode will serve as an example to the state Legislature, where the Michigan Religious Freedom and Restoration Act has stirred debate over allowing people and businesses to claim exemptions from state laws owing to their religious beliefs.
Blackmore says, "Many of us suspect [it's] shortsighted in that it doesn't account for the multiple religions that may seek privilege and exemption under its umbrella."
And she says that the idea of erecting non-Christian holiday displays might spread.
"We've inspired a lot of enthusiasm, and other chapters of The Satanic Temple are looking into the possibility of submitting displays across the nation," Blackmore says. "It's a bit late in the season now, but I feel the next year's holiday season will see a lot more in the way of Satanic displays."
While the situation has brought a burst of attention to Michigan's Capitol staff, it has also created a unique circumstance for Brocklehurst, who says he's "very committed" to his Christian faith.
On Sunday, Brocklehurst will visit the state Capitol to review the Satanic Temple display — before continuing on to attend worship services at his church.