NEWAYGO, Mich. — Christmas music playing over speakers and festive decorations throughout downtown illustrate Newaygo’s holiday spirit. However, a group has taken issue with a display overlooking the town.
The three wise men, a biblical reference to the birth of Jesus Christ, and the Star of David sit atop a public elementary school. Mitch Kahle, a member of the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), said his group received a complaint and photos of the display from an area resident.
“We’ve asked the school to remove what is, in essence, a nativity scene from the top of the school and from school property. If this were on private property this wouldn’t be an issue,” Kahle explained.
He said his group wrote a letter to Newaygo Public School’s superintendent. MACRA posted about their complaint on Facebook which has led to hundreds of responses that are mostly in favor of keeping the display.
“We understand that these situations sometimes will make people upset, but just like in Grand Haven where their nativity scene had been up for 70 years, that’s now been gone for 5 years. The city council voted to remove it, and no complaints about it now,” Kahle said.
Newaygo Public Schools superintendent Peg Thelen Mathis issued the following statement in response:
“We have received a complaint from MACRA. We are working with our attorneys to formulate an appropriate response. We are in no way seeking a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.”
Mathis went on to post a public letter on her Facebook page comparing the tradition of the wise men on the camels to other purposeful traditions of the school.
“Newaygo Public Schools has a legitimate secular purpose for the display. We are both upholding the community’s tradition of celebrating a public holiday and attempting to point towards the importance of wisdom, knowledge, and open-mindedness. They’ve been described as the scientists of their time. The “wise men” are found in secular and other religious traditions outside of Christianity. Finally, there is no evidence that they were Jewish or Christian before their travels and there is nothing noted in the Christian Bible to indicate anything about any religion they practiced after their travels”.
Mathis continued to write, she plans to navigate these complaints fairly and legally but to her knowledge there isn’t a case law prohibiting the depiction of three non-christian middle eastern men on camels who are seeking wisdom.
Newaygo resident Sandy Emmerick told FOX 17, “I personally don’t judge. This is their opinion. This is my opinion.”
Emmerick and several other the people FOX 17 spoke to in town said the display has been there for decades. It’s the view from her front window at Market 41 antique shop.
“I’m a Christian and this is our little town in Newaygo, and we enjoy it,” she said.
Barbara Boelkins, a Newaygo resident said, “The symbols of Christianity and Christ’s birth mean a lot to me and to other people who are believers. So I’m glad to stand up and say, ‘Leave it alone’.”
State representative Jon Bumstead posted his support for the display on Facebook.