Sixth Circuit: County’s Denial of Permit for Creche Violates Free Speech Clause

Another skirmish in the Christmas Wars: the Sixth Circuit has decided that a county’s denial of a permit to erect a creche on public property violated the Free Speech Clause. For decades, a family in Macomb County, Michigan, had erected a Christmas creche on a roadway median.  In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation told the county that the creche violated the Establishment Clause and asked that it be removed; after consulting counsel, the county revoked the permit. The family then sued the county, arguing, among other things, that the county had violated the family’s free speech rights. Yesterday, the Sixth Circuit agreed. In a unanimous decision by Judge Boggs, the panel held that the median was a traditional public forum and that the county had not shown a compelling interest in rejecting the creche. Although the government argued that safety concerns justified its decision, the court dismissed this as a litigation strategy. The real reason the county had rejected the creche, the court said, was to avoid a perceived Establishment Clause violation. But, notwithstanding the legal advice the county had received,  the creche did not violate the Establishment Clause. The creche, the court explained, was only one of a number of privately-sponsored displays in a public forum, and thus constitutionally unobjectionable. The case is Satawa v. Macomb County Road Commission, 2012 WL 3104511 (6th Cir., Aug. 1, 2012).

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