Christmas in May: AFLC Attorney to Defend Nativity Display Before Federal Appellate Court Tomorrow

Cincinnati, Ohio (May 29, 2012) — Tomorrow, Robert Muise, Co-Founder and Senior Counsel of the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC), will present oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in an appeal to protect a private citizen’s First Amendment right to display a Nativity scene on public property during the Christmas season.  The case, Satawa v. Macomb County Road Commission, et al., was brought by Muise on behalf of Satawa, a longtime resident of the City of Warren, Michigan, and a practicing member of the Catholic Church.  

For over 60 years, Satawa and his family had displayed a Nativity scene during the Christmas season on the public median between Mound and Chicago Roads in the City of Warren, Michigan.  There had never been a single complaint about the display until December 2008, when the Macomb County Road Commission ordered Satawa to remove the Nativity scene within 30 days because he did not have a permit.  The Road Commission’s order was in response to a written request it received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheist activist organization that travels around the country challenging public religious displays. 

On February 12, 2009, Satawa submitted, as requested, a permit application that set forth the details of his proposed display, including photographs to show its size and location and to demonstrate that the display would not obstruct any vehicular or pedestrian traffic or create any public safety issues.  In fact, there has never been any traffic safety issue associated with the display during its 60-plus-year history.

On March 9, 2009, the Road Commission issued a “formal denial” of Satawa’s permit application, claiming that the Nativity scene was impermissible because it “displays a religious message.”  Consequently, on October 23, 2009, Muise filed a federal lawsuit against the Road Commission and the Commissioner, alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  As set forth in the lawsuit, Satawa’s Nativity display constitutes speech protected by the First Amendment.  Furthermore, any government action that discriminates against a person based on the exercise of his fundamental right to freedom of speech, as in this case, violates the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Muise commented, “This case presents an egregious attack on private religious speech in the public square.  Far from being a First Amendment orphan, Mr. Satawa’s private religious speech is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression. Consequently, we are asking the Sixth Circuit to not only restore Mr. Satawa’s cherished holiday tradition, but to restore the protections afforded all private citizens by our Constitution.”

After the lawsuit was filed, the Road Commission asserted “safety concerns” as a basis for denying the permit.  As demonstrated by undisputed record evidence, these concerns were without merit.  In fact, the Road Commission’s own safety expert testified that the display did not violate any of the applicable safety standards.  In fact, it is undisputed that at no time prior to the lawsuit was Satawa ever informed by the Road Commission that his display caused any safety issues or that safety was a basis for denying the permit.  Indeed, the Nativity scene caused no accidents or any other traffic safety issues during the more than 60 years it had been displayed at this location.

On October 30, 2009, Satawa filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, seeking an order to permit his Nativity display during the 2009 Christmas holiday season.  On December 28, 2009, three days after Christmas, the district court judge denied the request.  On April 19, 2010, the court entered an opinion and order, ruling that the Road Commission’s refusal to permit the display of the Nativity scene did not violate the Constitution.  That order was immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which will be hearing oral argument from Muise and the attorney for the Road Commission this Wednesday.  

Additional details: Oral argument is set to begin at 9:00 a.m. in the 4th Floor Courtroom (Room 403).  Immediately after oral argument, AFLC Co-Founder & Senior Counsel Robert Muise will be taking interview requests: he can be reached directly at (734) 635-3756.