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Federal court allows Nativity scene on public highway

A Macomb County man has the right to display a Nativity scene in a public road median. That’s according to a federal appeals court ruling. It reverses a Detroit judge’s decision.

John Satawa's family has been displaying a crèche in this busy highway median every Christmas for decades. But the county asked him to take it down when it got complaints from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  Satawa sued, and now the federal appeals court is siding with him.

Richard Friedman is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He says it came down to this: the court decided the median functions kind of like a park.  It has benches, a gazebo,  even some historical farm equipment.

What does that have to do with a crèche? Well, if the median is a public park, then Satawa has a constitutional right to free expression in the park – especially since other displays (yes, the farm equipment counts) have also been allowed.

Says Friedman: "Because they allowed some forms of expression there, well, parks are a forum in which free expression is allowed. And you can't have an historical display of farm equipment, allow that and not tolerate the creche."

Friedman says this ruling hinged on the specifics of the case, and so likely won’t have broader implications. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.