A federal appeals court panel has ruled that a Michigan county improperly censored a Nativity scene because of the religious content of the Christmas display.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower court to resolve the dispute in accordance with its ruling.
“Although the lawsuit is not yet over, we are tremendously pleased with the unanimous decision of the 6th Circuit Court panel,” said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center.
The dispute centers on a display that has been on public property in Macomb County, Mich., for decades. In 2008, the county ordered the holiday displayed removed, and the Thomas More Law Center sued on behalf of Warren city resident John Satawa, whose family has maintained the display since 1945.
“This is a great victory for private religious speech in a traditional public forum,” said Robert Muise, who was with the Thomas More Law Center when the case began, but now works with the American Freedom Law Center.
“As the 6th Circuit confirmed today, Mr. Satawa’s private religious speech is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression,” Muise said. “We are pleased that the 6th Circuit not only restored Mr. Satawa’s cherished holiday tradition, but upheld the protections afforded to all private citizens by our Constitution.”
A federal judge previously upheld the county’s decision to ban the display, but the appellate judges said the decision had to be reversed on free-speech and equal protection grounds.
The Nativity scene was first displayed in 1945 when St. Anne’s Parish was established in Warren. The scene was deemed to be too large to be placed inside the church, and the congregation obtained permission from the village to display it on the median of a local street.
The county barred the display after protest from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
However, the appeals court ruled that the land was a public forum, since the government had a process for citizens to display structures on public rights-of-way. The median already had several improvements, including old farm implements and a gazebo.
On appeal, the county argued that it made the decision based on safety factors.
The appeals panel, however, said in its opinion that prior to the lawsuit, the county gave “no indication that safety concerns played any role in the board’s decision.”
“Quite the contrary. Even though Satawa’s permit application specifically claimed that the crèche did not obstruct traffic or pose ‘any other safety concerns,’ [the county's] letter denying the permit only addressed religion,” the judges wrote.
The judges noted that the rejection letter said: “The Road Commission of Macomb County cannot permit you to display this Nativity scene in the Road Commission’s right of way. This undoubtedly would be interpreted as our endorsement of religion.”
Wrote the judges: “Not once did he use the word ‘safety;’ not once did he use the word ‘traffic.’
The judges said that if Macomb County Road Commissioner Robert Hoepfner’s “concern really were traffic safety, it is implausible that there would be no mention of traffic safety in either his letter to Satawa or his presentation to the board.”
“Hoepfner’s dealing only with religious concerns in documented letters and discussions before litigation began strongly suggests that the Establishment Clause, not safety, was the reason for his decision,” the judges said.