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Nativity’s return heralded as a victory for free speech

December 20, 2012

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John and Mary Satawa stand near the nativity scene that was a holiday fixture at the intersection of Mound and Chicago roads for 63 years before the county denied a permit for it in 2009. Satawa won a legal battle that allowed the display to be returned this year.

WARREN — One long court battle and three Christmases later, a Warren resident’s family nativity scene is back in the Mound Road median where it stood for more than 63 years during the holidays before 2009.

John Satawa, 76, was granted a permit for the display this year by the Macomb County Department of Roads after a federal appellate court judge sided with him in August in a lawsuit filed against the county.

“I’m so happy that it’s back up,” Satawa said last week. “I’m getting support all over the place. People come up and are saying they’re so happy about it. It’s very, very positive.”

The lawsuit alleging a violation of Satawa’s First Amendment right to free speech was filed on his behalf by the Thomas More Law Center in 2009, after the county denied the request for a permit for the display.

The denial came a year after the county received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, claiming an anonymous local resident complained about the wooden structure and figures depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. County roads officials originally ordered Satawa to remove the display in 2008, but later granted him a window that permitted it to remain up during the holiday season that year. The county later argued the display would have violated an existing policy that precludes private encroachment in highway medians.

Satawa said he’d never sought a permit prior to 2008 and that he was never asked to submit one until the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter of complaint was sent to the county.

The nativity was constructed and first displayed by Satawa’s father and another man in 1945. 

On Dec. 15, Satawa’s supporters heralded its return to the Mound Road median as a victory for the “good guys.”

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation conducts seek and destroy missions of Christian expressions throughout America. But thanks to the perseverance of John Satawa and the insight of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel that heard our case, this is one battle they lost,” Thomas More Law Center president and chief counsel Richard Thompson said in a prepared statement. “John Satawa is now able to resume this wonderful tradition started over 60 years ago.”

Satawa said the display would remain in place until Dec. 29.

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website, a sign bearing a “Winter Solstice” message was erected in the median nearby on Mound Road Dec. 15 by one of the group’s local members who sought a proper permit for it through the county. The group alleged the sign was vandalized sometime later that day.

The group previously called on Mayor Jim Fouts to remove a nativity scene and a “Prayer Station” from the atrium of Warren’s City Hall. Fouts refused, and denied their request to display the controversial solstice message in the atrium.

About the author

Staff Writer Brian Louwers covers the cities of Warren and Center Line. He has worked for C & G Newspapers since 1998 and is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In his free time, he participates in the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program and conducts interviews with military veterans for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

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