Why should a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus be placed in the median of a public road? It shouldn't, contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in seeking court permission to file an amicus brief in a Michigan case that bars a Christian creche from being placed on public property.
The Foundation, a state-church watchdog with more than 14,000 members nationwide and over 400 in Michigan, originally complained in December 2008 about the creche along Mound Road in Warren in Macomb County, Mich. The county Road Commission then told the owner, John Satawa, that he had to remove it, even though it had been placed at the site each December for more than 60 years by the Satawa family. The Satawas never applied for a permit and put the display up each year without permission.
Satawa sued the Road Commission in October in U.S. District Court. The Foundation filed a motion Dec. 9 asking the court for leave to file an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the county. Attorney Danielle Hessell, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., filed the Foundation's motion and proposed brief.
The Foundation contends that placing an inherently religious nativity scene on a public median with the permission of Macomb County "would constitute an illegal endorsement of religion."
The Foundation's motion said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government is prohibited "from maintaining, erecting or hosting a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene. . . . The creche is solely an expression of adherence to the Christian religion."
Satawa in his suit argued that because streets, sidewalks, medians and parks are traditional public fora, "the government's ability to restrict speech in that forum is sharply limited."
But, contends the Foundation, if the county considers placing a creche merely an issue of free speech, it must also allow other private citizens or groups to place similar "speech" on the median. If so, "the placement of the creche may indeed be on the precipice of a very slippery slope."
The county argues that the creche in the median could pose a hazard to the health and safety of residents using the road.
The defendant takes issue with Satawa's offer to put a sign near the creche that says it's privately owned and doesn't reflect the view of the Road Commission.
The Foundation agrees with the county that "the religious message of a creche on government property may be too pervasive to be mitigated by the presence of a disclaimer."
"We're happy about the county's decision to deny the permit," said Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Religious symbolism has no place on government property in any way, shape or form."