Warren’s controversial nativity scene
John Satawa’s family has displayed a nativity scene on a street median in Warren, Mich., virtually every Christmas season since 1945, but following an intimidating letter sent by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Satawa’s county has put stop to the 63-year-old tradition.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation proclaims its purpose in the letter to the Road Commission of Macomb County was to “protect the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
But Satawa contends there’s nothing unconstitutional about his privately owned and maintained Christmas display. With the help of the Thomas More Law Center, Satawa has filed a case in U.S. district court asking the judge to declare the county’s crèche rejection unconstitutional instead and order officials to permit its display.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Law Center, commented in a statement, “Every Christmas holiday, militant atheists … use the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ – nowhere found in our Constitution – as a means of intimidating municipalities and schools into removing expressions celebrating Christmas, a national holiday. Their goal is to cleanse our public square of all Christian symbols.
“However,” Thompson continued, “the grand purpose of our Founding Fathers and the First Amendment was to protect religion, not eliminate it. Municipalities and schools should be aware that the systematic exclusion of Christmas symbols during the holiday season is itself inconsistent with the Constitution.”
The story of the nativity scene began in 1945, when the congregation of St. Anne’s Parish was established in the Village of Warren, and a set of Christmas statues was donated to the Catholic church for a nativity display.
The statues were too large to display inside the church, the lawsuit explains, 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.
Satawa’s father, Joseph Satawa, using donated lumber, built a manger for the crèche, and obtained permission from the village president to display the scene on the median between Mound and Chicago Roads.
Though the years, local businesses and citizens have donated materials and labor to erect and refurnish the nativity. It has been a Warren tradition for 63 years, still spearheaded by the Satawa family, and it has graced the same street median every year, save for 1996, when construction prohibited its display.
But in December of 2008, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the county a complaint letter.
It read, in part, “When the county displays this manger scene, which depicts the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, it places an imprimatur of the Macomb County government behind the Christian religious doctrine. This excludes citizens who are not Christian – Jews, Native American religion practitioners, animists, etc., as well as the significant and growing population that is not religious at all.”
Citing a selection of Supreme Court cases, the letter concludes, “There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed, including, presumably, St. Anne’s Parish, where this display clearly belongs. Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship.”
After receiving the letter, the county road commission demanded Satawa remove the nativity scene because he had not obtained the appropriate permit.
When Satawa applied for the permit in anticipation of the upcoming 2009 Christmas season, he was denied and told by the county that the nativity scene “clearly displays a religious message” in alleged violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Thomas More Law Center, however, contends the Establishment clause should protect the nativity, not forbid it.
The lawsuit points out that private displays of the community’s history and tradition are currently permitted and constructed on the median in question, and that the county is discriminating against the private nativity display based solely on its content, not its constitutionality.
“The United States Supreme Court has long held that all public streets, which includes public medians, are held in the public trust and are properly considered traditional public forums for private speech,” commented Law Center attorney Robert Muise in a statement, citing his own legal precedents. “Moreover, the Supreme Court has also stated that ‘private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression.’
“Consequently,” he concluded, “by restricting speech because it is religious expression, the Road Commission is imposing a content-based restriction on private speech in a traditional public forum in clear violation of the Constitution.”
Specifically, the lawsuit contends, the county’s prohibition of the private nativity scene “lacks a valid secular purpose, has the primary effect of inhibiting religion and creates an excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the United States Constitution.”
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan.