ANN ARBOR, MI — A panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision this morning reversing an earlier Federal District Court decision that upheld the Macomb County, Michigan Road Commission 2008 order to remove a privately maintained nativity display.
In October 2009, the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest firm based in Ann Arbor Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Warren city resident John Satawa against the Road Commission for its discriminatory decision to ban the private display. The purpose of the lawsuit was to obtain a declaratory judgment that the Road Commission’s actions were unconstitutional and to obtain a court order permitting the nativity display.
The nativity display, which included a manger and a set of statues depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, has been erected and maintained by members of the Satawa family every Christmas season since 1945.
Nevertheless, a federal district judge upheld the road commission’s order banning future displays of the Nativity scene on the grounds that the display violated the Establishment Clause. Although the Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the judge’s ruling on the Establishment Clause, it reversed his ruling on the free-speech and equal protection claims, and remanded the case back to the judge for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Law Center, commented, “Although the lawsuit is not yet over, we are tremendously pleased with the unanimous decision of the Sixth Circuit Court panel.”
History of Nativity Display
In 1945, St. Anne’s Parish was established in the Village of Warren. During its first year of existence, a set of Christmas statues depicting the nativity scene was donated to the Catholic church. The statues were too large to display on the inside of the church, so some members of the congregation thought it would be a good idea to display the statues and a manger in the center of the village during the Christmas holiday season. The President of the Village at the time granted permission to display the nativity scene on the median between Mound and Chicago Roads in Warren. As a result, a Christmas tradition was born.
Since 1945, a Christmas nativity display has been erected at this location in Warren by John Satawa and members of his family. Satawa took over the responsibility of erecting the nativity display after his father, Mr. Joseph Satawa, passed away in 1965. Over the years, members of the community, private businesses and organizations, including a Boy Scout Troop from St. Anne’s Parish, have assisted in keeping the Christmas tradition alive — a tradition that militant atheists abhor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s threatening letter claimed the presence of the nativity display on the public median violated the “constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” Link to Letter
In December 2008, after receiving the threatening letter, the Road Commission demanded Satawa “immediately remove” his nativity display because he had not obtained the appropriate permit to display it on the public median. The Road Commission has a permit application process whereby private citizens and organizations can request permission to display structures on public rights-of-way, such as medians. In fact, the median in question has several structures that were erected by a private organization, including old farming equipment and wagons, to maintain the “village” nature of the city.
Consequently, Satawa acquired a permit application from the Road Commission and promptly submitted it so as to obtain a permit to display his nativity scene during the upcoming 2009 Christmas holiday season but the Road Commission denied the permit.