A Michigan man has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was ordered to remove a Nativity scene from the median of a public road — a creche that his family has displayed at the location for 63 years.
John Satawa, of Warren, Mich., filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Friday in an attempt to be allowed to put back the 8- by 8-foot Nativity scene his late father built in 1945.
After receiving a complaint by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation last December, the Road Commission of Macomb County told Satawa to remove the holiday display, citing incomplete permits. Satawa's permit application was later denied because it "clearly displays a religious message" and violated "separation of church and state," Macomb County Highway Engineer Robert Hoepfner wrote.
Satawa says he simply wants to restore the "tradition" on the median between Mound and Chicago Roads outside of St. Anne's Parish Church.
"The Nativity display has been a tradition not just for my family, but for the whole community for 63 years," Satawa told Foxnews.com in a statement. "I am disappointed the Road Commission would not stand up for our community and our Constitution and that is why I was compelled to file this lawsuit."
According to Satawa's lawsuit, St. Anne's Parish received a donation of Christmas statues in March 1945 that were too large to house inside the church — so they were moved to the public median outside. Jack Eckstein, president of the village of Warren at the time, granted permission for the move.
"As a result, a Christmas tradition was born," the lawsuit reads.
The Nativity display has been there every Christmas season since, except for one — 1996 — when there was road construction. The creche returned the following year, according to the lawsuit.
But last year, just 14 days before Christmas, Satawa received a letter from the Macomb County Road Commission instructing him to "immediately remove" the Nativity scene within 30 days. Satawa removed the structure and was denied a permit when he reapplied in January. In March, he received a formal denial of his petition to erect the nativity scene because, according to county officials, it would be a violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
"It boils down to maintaining a tradition that's been going on for six decades and one letter received from an out-of-state radical organization," attorney Brian Rooney of the Thomas More Law Center told Foxnews.com. "We believe this shows hostility towards Christianity."
The Thomas More Law Center filed the lawsuit on Satawa's behalf, alleging the Road Commission's restriction violates his First Amendment rights and equal protection guarantee under the Fourteenth Amendment.
"We're very confident," Rooney said. "We believe the law of the Constitution is on our side."
But Ben Aloia, an attorney representing the Macomb County Road Commission, disagreed, citing Allegheny v. ACLU of Pittsburgh, in which the Supreme Court held in 1989 that a county government's Nativity scene displayed at a courthouse was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
"We believe that our decision is in line with that rule of law," Aloia said. "The fact is, he's never acquired a formal permit to install this Nativity scene."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the creche is also a traffic hazard.
"You can’t see around it," she told Foxnews.com. "We are a nation of rules and laws, and that law even applies to St. Anne's Parish. I can't understand why they can't put the scene on their church grounds. They're trying to take over public property for their religious purposes, and that's not allowed."
Rooney said an emergency injunction will be filed within the next two weeks in an attempt to make sure the Nativity scene returns in time for the upcoming holiday season.
Satawa, meanwhile, says he has received support from hundreds of neighbors.
"This response is the USA I like," he said, "people that are not afraid to stand up for what is right."