WARREN — His legal battles with atheists and the Macomb County Department of Roads behind him, John Satawa spent last week getting ready to assemble his family’s nativity scene at the intersection of Mound and Chicago roads.
“Now, it’s just a matter of going back to routine,” said Satawa, 77, of Warren. “Everything is staying as it had been for 60 years, and then last year. No changes.”
Satawa’s father and another man built the crèche depicting the birth of Jesus Christ in 1945. The enclosure, crib and figurines were placed at the intersection every year at Christmastime until a Wisconsin-based atheist group started a legal battle in 2008.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Macomb County roads officials in 2008, lodging a complaint on behalf of an anonymous resident and demanded that the crèche be removed.
The county asked Satawa to remove the display in 2008 but later allowed him to keep it in place through Christmas that year.
In 2009, Satawa was directed by the county to seek a permit for the display. The permit was denied by the Department of Roads, which cited an existing policy precluding private encroachment in highway medians.
A federal lawsuit claiming the denial violated Satawa’s constitutional rights was filed on his behalf in 2009 by the Thomas More Law Center. The legal battle ended with a decision in Satawa’s favor in August 2012 by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bob Hoepfner, director of the Macomb County Department of Roads, said Satawa secured a permit to place the crèche in the median on Dec. 10. The fee for the permit was $250.
Satawa planned to assemble the display Dec. 14 and said it would stand until Dec. 28, at which point it would go back in storage until next year.
Another stipulation required Satawa to obtain liability insurance for the display. He said a two-week policy with $1 million in liability coverage cost $725 but that some people had stepped forward with financial contributions to offset the added cost.
“There’s a lot of people who wanted it up. Two weeks is better than none,” Satawa said Dec. 12. “I’m getting tremendous support from the local people.”
Satawa said support came in from around the country during his legal battles since 2009 and that the words of encouragement came from people of all faiths, even from other atheists.
At the county’s direction, the display also includes a sign indicating that it is privately owned.
“It’s been in the family all these years. It’s not only a tradition of our family, it’s to put Christ in Christmas and keep Christ in Christmas,” Satawa said. “It’s what Christmas is about, and it’s why I put it up.”