WARREN, Michigan, October 26, 2009 ( – The Christmas culture wars for 2009 have now begun and ground zero is the Detroit suburb of Warren, which for 63 years has hosted a privately maintained nativity scene set at the crossroads of the city.

The Nativity display had been maintained by Warren city resident John Satawa and his family for most of the municipality's history until the Macomb County Road Commission this year ordered the display removed because it “clearly displays a religious message” in violation of the “separation of church and state.” 

The Road Commission had informed Satawa of its decision upon receiving a letter in December 2008 from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which purported to act on behalf of a complainant in the city of 134,000 residents, saying the display violated the Constitution.

However, on Friday the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Satawa against the Road Commission, arguing that its decision violates the Establishment Clause by disfavoring religion.

Satawa's legal counsel hopes to obtain a court order permitting the nativity display along with a declaratory judgment that the Road Commission's actions were unconstitutional.

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Law Center, said that militant atheists attempt to do through the courts what the Taliban by force had done to Afghanistan: removing all the symbols of the country's national heritage.

Thompson added that nowhere in the US Constitution appears the phrase “separation of church and state”; nevertheless, every Christmas those words become 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, the grand purpose of our Founding Fathers and the First Amendment was to protect religion, not eliminate it.”

The nativity crèche dates from 1945, just five years after the incorporation of the Village of Warren, which then boasted 582 inhabitants. The statues at the time were originally donated to the newly formed St. Anne's Church, but as they were too large, the idea was formed to make them part of an outdoor crèche on the median of Chicago and Mound streets.

“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,” said Robert Muise, the Law Center attorney handling the matter. “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, 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.”

The lawsuit maintains that the Road Commission's content-based restriction on Satawa's private religious expression violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The lawsuit also alleges that the Road Commissions' policy decision violates the Establishment Clause by disfavoring religion.

The case is assigned to the court of U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Michigan.

See the complaint filed by Thomas More Law Center here.

See the Freedom From Religion Letter here.