So there I was, wandering the foggy streets of Lansing, Michigan, wearing a colander studded with blinking LEDs, looking for a menorah. Believe it or not this was not a regular Monday evening for me.
Although you might know I’m an atheist, you may not know I’m also a Pastafarian, a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. There is a lot I could tell you about that, but none of it is terribly important to the story, so I won’t just yet.
The State Capitol in Lansing is allowing various religious groups to put up displays celebrating various religious holidays on government property. This appears to be thanks to Ted Cruz, a fearless leader in the fight for freedom of religious expression. The Cruz campaign is putting on a live nativity the evenings of December 12 and 13 smack dab on the Capitol lawn. The Cruz live nativity spurred other religious groups to plan displays of their own, including a “Snaketivity” from the Satanic Temple of Detroit (spoiler alert: they don’t actually worship Satan), another Christian nativity sponsored by Michigan Senator Rick Jones, a Flying Spaghetti Monster from our own Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and of course the menorah (not sure if it’s associated with a specific temple) sponsored by Rep. Mike Callton.
Pastafarians like myself are not generally interested in proselytizing, but we do think if the government opens up a platform, it’s important to make sure as many voices are represented as possible… And that includes us (because naturally, we think ours is the One True Faith).
Personally I’m not convinced the government has any business endorsing any religion or faith in any way– even cute little holiday displays– but I do know if it does, our noodley deity has a right to be there as well. An apparent government endorsement of one religion definitely sends the wrong signals; it’s always best to include a bunch of folks in colanders talking about spaghetti to make sure the conversation is reasonable and balanced.
As soon as I discovered there were to be religious displays on government property I created a Facebook event to connect with other Pastafarians in an effort to make sure our Holiday was added to the mix. Soon I was connecting with my brand new Michigander Pastafarian friends who shared my interest in celebtrating and/or protesting religious expression on government property. Thanks, Internet.
We were busy making plans for a display on December 12 and 13 when I suddenly noticed there was a holiday display happening even sooner: Monday night. There was to be a “Chanukah Display” starting at 6pm, apparently sponsored in some way by Representative Mike Callton.
There it was! I immediately shared this discovery with other Pastafarians and planned to attend the event myself even if that meant I’d be the only representative of the Church of the FSM. It was short notice, but in the interest of ensuring religious plurality I’d be there. I spent the early morning hours of Monday soldering and twisting wire to create a blinking LED colander. (As you likely are aware, the colander is one of our most profound religious symbols and a useful tool in the fight for religious freedom.) I made some signs, hopped into the car, and headed off to Lansing.
There I was, clutching two separation of church and state-themed posters, a blinking colander atop my head, various resistors and wires gently poking into my scalp. Every now and then I turned a knob in my pocket that adjusted the rate of the blinking. As I approached the behemoth of a capitol building I wondered how many cameras were trained on my blinking silhouette, how many government employees were preparing to rush out and inspect my homemade electronic contraption. (Then I wondered how long it would have taken if my skin were brown instead of white, but I digress. One social justice issue at a time, this is supposed to be a fishing blog after all!)
I took two laps around the entire building, my eyes scanning the frigid, foggy scene for any sign of a menorah. I had no idea how big the menorah would be or where it would be located. There were no crowds to point me in the right direction; no signs or anything else suggesting I was anything but misguided. I checked the date three times, and yes, it was indeed December 7. Didn’t mean I wasn’t misguided, just that I was in the right place on the right day.
There was an impressively huge, vibrantly-decorated Christmas tree where Michigan Avenue met the expansive campus of the Capitol. Along Michigan was an arrangement of lights that said something like “Peace on Earth,” then more brightly-lit evergreens. A beautiful display but as far as I was concerned, completely devoid of any church-state-separation issues.
I sat on the Capitol steps and called Rep. Mike Callton’s office hoping I might catch somebody late at the office– by this point it was about 5:45pm, just a few minutes before the official event was starting. I left a voicemail inquiring about the Chanukkah Display. “Just wondering– is it still happening today?”
I was all riled up without anything to protest, er, without any freedom of religious expression to celebrate. And then I noticed that there was one area I had not yet examined for possibly tiny, hidden menorahs.
As I rounded a bend to what looked like the Capitol facilities or operations entrance, there it was. Standing between a small entrance and an open dumpster, the menorah!
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From where I stood on the street I couldn’t get a good look in the parking lot; I assumed there would be a crowd of folks there for the “Chanukah Display” at 6pm. I prepared myself for the looks, the questions, possibly the anger, and walked into the parking lot. The 9V battery in the repurposed Altoids tin was still pumping its juice, my colander was still blinking.
And nobody was there!
The menorah was a fairly tall, metal-looking thing with slices of PVC pipe holding those faint electric candles like the ones you get in the holiday aisle at Meijer. The middle light and a light on the right side were both “lit.”
Besides cars, the parking lot was empty.
I was perplexed, and not for the first time that evening. Did I miss the ceremony? Was this the secondary menorah, and the primary one was wherever the party was? Why was it here and not out in front of the building? Why was it standing next to the dumpster? Where was Rep. Callton? Was I the only person who cared the menorah was there? Who even knew it was there?
I was contemplating these thoughts when a woman carrying a trash bag emerged from the building. She gave me a quizzical look.
“I’m, uh, here protesting, um, the menorah,” I muttered, knowing full well I looked ridiculous standing there in the parking lot trying to protest an inanimate object.
She dropped the trash in the dumpster and headed toward a running car that was waiting for her. “Oh ok,” she said, “Yeah I think you might as well just go home.”
“Yeah you’re probably right, I might just do that! Thought there’d be people here,” I said, trailing off as she drove away.
A bit later a man came out of the building and walked toward me. He appeared to be part of the Michigan State Police detail assigned to the Capitol.
“Hey,” he said in a sincerely friendly way, smiling. “What’s going on?”
“Hey!” I replied. “I’m here for the menorah”
I motioned to the menorah. He looked over and seemed to be surprised it was there, then looked back at me because my explanation needed more explaining.
“I’m here to protest the menorah being here; I believe it’s a violation of the separation of church and state,” I said.
“Ah, ok,” he said unconvincingly, looking curiously at my blinking colander and glancing at my sign in a way I interpreted as trying not to be rude. A nice guy just trying to make sense of my weirdness.
“Oh,” I said, acknowledging the colander. “I’m a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Some folks call us a ‘parody religion.’ The colander is important to our faith because our deity is a spaghetti monster,” I said, pointing to the FSM I’d drawn and colored with Sharpies earlier in the day.
“Oh,” he said with a note of recognition, “The Seinfeld thing! Ah, yes I get it,”
Sort of like that,” I said. “That’s ‘Festivus,’ which is a secular Winter holiday from that TV show. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a religion about pasta, but also about keeping creationism out of schools, the separation of church and state, and stuff like that.”
“Ok cool, I get it.” said the man.
“I expected there to be people here…” I said, looking around the parking lot. “Lighting the menorah, or celebrating, or something… I wasn’t coming to protest their celebrating, just that there’s this religious symbol sitting on government property, you know?”
“Yeah I get that. I didn’t even know this was here! Was there supposed to be some event tonight?”
Some church bells rang across the street signaling that it was 6pm on the dot– exactly when the “Chanukah Display” was supposed to begin.
“Yup, it said on the Michigan State Capitol Building Events calendar there was a ‘Chanukah Display’ here at 6pm– which is right now,” I said.
“Huh,” he said.
“Also,” I said. “I’m not religious or anything, but it seems like some folks might find it sort of disrespectful to have the menorah sitting out here next to the dumpster.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah you’re right.” (A beat.) “So, you’re just going to hang out here?”
“Yup,” I replied. “Protest and stuff, I guess.”
“Ok,” he said. “Well, have a good night!”
“You too!” I said as he went back into the building.
I looked at the menorah. It seemed innocuous enough, not exactly a war on secularism. I liked the little pieces of PVC pipe. I thought about how something can have so much meaning for so many people even if it’s constructed out of hardware store materials.
That’s cool. It just doesn’t belong at the Capitol.
A few minutes later the little garage door behind the menorah opened up and stopped at neck-level of a man wearing a tan shirt who I assumed to be some sort of government employee. He reached out and grabbed the menorah.
“Hey there,” I said, bending over so I could see the dude. “What’s happening with the menorah?”
“Taking it inside for security reasons,” he said, not nearly as friendly as the first guy. I don’t blame him. I looked pretty damn silly.
“Oh, ok,” I said.
“…And it’s too big for our regulations, that’s why it’s back here and not out front.”
“Gotcha. Yeah it seems taller than four feet,” I said.
“Yup,” he said, wrangling the menorah under the garage door into the building. “And the rabbi has to be here to do stuff with it, but he’s not here, we don’t know where he is,”
“Oh,” I said.
“And also, thanks for mentioning the thing about being next to the dumpster, we agree: it seems disrespectful,”
“Oh, yeah, no problem,” I said as he closed the garage door.
And then I was just standing alone in a parking lot protesting a garage door.
I thought about the government employees responsible for taking care of the menorah. Is it really their job to figure out the rules for various religious symbols so they can avoid offending people? I hoped that nobody would get in trouble; that guy was just doing his job, trying to take care of the Capitol.
I thought about Jewish folks and how they might react to seeing a picture of their menorah like the one I took. I wasn’t offended by it– I don’t believe anything is sacred– but we have fought so hard for the freedoms we enjoy; It seemed so pointless to go to all the trouble of getting a religious display on government property only to see it placed next to some trash and then quickly moved inside.
It’s more than a little ironic they moved it because an atheist pointed out standing next to the dumpster could be seen as disrespectful. A bit later I met up with a pair of Pastafarians who also came to see the menorah and agreed.

What purpose does such a religious symbol really serve on government property?

Certainly not to remind people religion exists; it’s on our money (since the “Red Scare” of the 1950s), it’s in our courts (swearing in on the Christian Bible), it’s in our Pledge of Allegiance (again, the “In God We Trust” was added in the 1950s).
Certainly not to bring attention to any number of religious holidays; our region has no shortage of places of worship that have plenty of space for nativity scenes, menorahs, blow-up Jesus lawn ornaments; free from the 4′ x 4′ x 4′ size restrictions imposed by the Capitol Events team. I haven’t yet seen a 4′ x 4′ x 4′ religious display placed on the enormous Capitol lawn, but I can only imagine anything would seem tiny in such a large expanse of grass and trees. At that point why even bother?
Certainly not just to collect votes from constituents who follow that particular faith; Our politicians would never stoop to such patronizing, empty gestures. I’m sure most members of government agree the very best way to share their faith is through their actions and voting. Celebrating a story about refugees looking for shelter around 2,000 years ago? Maybe you should consider helping refugees looking for shelter in your own country today.
And certainly not to use influence as a member of congress or senate to endorse one’s own faith.
It seems that such compromises are only doing a disservice to everyone involved: the good people who maintain the Capitol grounds get stuck moving religious symbols around trying to avoid offending folks, the size limitations for displaying these symbols on government property are so small the displays are dwarfed by their location, and of course the obvious truth that there is no way every faith and non-faith can possibly be represented on even the large swath of grass at the Capitol. Many hours of work has already been spent creating a display for our Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that is the work of many people! What about tiny religious groups that may contain only a handful of individuals? Should they be expected to come together and create a display for the Capitol?
Of course not.
One solution could be to simply allow whatever faiths and non-faiths that have the means to do so create displays for the Capitol. In other words, if they want to make one, make one. If they can’t or don’t want to, don’t.
But what sort of message does that send to our community, to the multitude of wordviews that can be found in Michigan? How about the Hindu family that sees a Christian Nativity, a Jewish Menorah, and a Satanic Snake on the Capitol lawn but nothing for Pancha Ganapati? Or the Muslim family that sees no mention of Mawlid an-Nabī?
Religious symbols have meaning; that’s the whole point. Religious symbols on government property mean something.
As Sandra Day O’Connor (who used to have a fancy job in an important court) so eloquently wrote:

“Endorsement [of religion] sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

I’m no constitutional scholar or lawyer; I can’t speak to the legality of displays like this. What I do know is that as one of those “nonadherents” O’Connor speaks of I do indeed feel just a bit excluded when I see religious displays on our tax-funded public property, and I can only imagine I’m not the only one. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, maybe I should just stop whining or choose not to look at these religious displays… But we’re not talking about private property, we’re talking about the government. You know, that institution for the people, by the people; all the people. Every single one of the people.
Our collective beliefs, superstitions, worldviews, philosophies, and faiths are far too numerous and varied to ever be adequately represented on the lawn of a government building, let alone in a way that preserves our equality under the law.
Religious displays on government property must go. Until that happens, we will be there to share in the freedom of religious expression, wearing colanders, pirate regalia, and using public property as a platform to proselytize.
The office of Rep. Callton has not responded to repeated requests for more information about the menorah. If we learn more details about the “Chanukah Display” I’ll update this post. If you’re interested in joining our protests/celebrations of freedom of religious expression, give me a shout, check out the Alto Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and join us this Saturday, December 12 at the Capitol!
Update 12/10/15: Still no word from any official offices, but the menorah has been made smaller and appears to be on display at the Capitol.

2 responses

  1. Kudos for standing up actively for what you believe in. Between this & eating a bowfin, I’ll say it again, “You’ve got some grit, bravery, moral fiber, spirit, pluck, gumption, mettle and courage (you know,balls!)” or in this case, Chutzpah!!!!

    • ‘Preciate the kind words. It seems that having “moral fiber” is not something a lot of folks associate with atheists, but obviously I’d like to change that. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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