CANTON, Mich. -- The pilgrims keep coming: neighbors and curious outsiders. They all want to see the 5-foot statue of the Virgin Mary on Jamal Saba's front lawn.

But the visitors aren't praying at the outdoor shrine. They're focused on a more earthly question: What happens when freedom of expression collides with the kind of restrictive covenants cropping up in many new, upscale housing developments?

When Saba, an Arab-American Catholic, moved his family into a $500,000 dream house in April, it was a natural expression of their faith to include a statue of Mary in the $10,000 landscaping design.

He was shocked recently to find an anonymous letter stuffed in his mailbox, telling him that religion should stay inside the home, and later to discover that he might face a legal challenge from his homeowners' association over the statue.

"All of a sudden, they hate me because the Virgin Mary went up," said Saba, who was born in Ramallah just north of Jerusalem, moved to the United States in 1970 and later became a citizen. "This is my country. This is the best country, but I'm not going to put up with this. The Virgin Mary is not going anywhere." Saba's refusal to move the statue sets the stage for a dispute that raises issues of law, religion, personal taste and diversity.

Already, spokesmen for the American Civil Liberties Union in Detroit and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York say they plan to look into the case.

"It's unfortunate in this day and age that somebody would be harassed because they want to express their religious views," league spokesman Patrick Scully said.

All the attention has miffed members of the homeowners' association, who are struggling to resolve what they thought was a simple spat over a lawn ornament. Rob Canzano, head of the association's architecture and landscaping committee, said Saba violated a deed restriction by not seeking the committee's approval for the statue. But Canzano added that the statue is too large and conspicuous, and the committee probably would have denied approval.

"It is not a racial or religious issue at all," said Canzano, who also is Catholic.

"People here have their homes for sale, and this could affect the sale. If the statue was a big pink elephant, it would be the same issue."

However, David Brooks, the neighbor who filed a complaint with the committee, said he is concerned about the religious nature of the display, which includes a rose-strewn trellis around the statue and small lights at night.

"I don't force my religious beliefs on anybody," Brooks said. "I don't stick a 20-foot Buddha in my front yard."

Other residents are caught up in the debate. Though many declined to be named, three said Saba shouldn't be forced to remove the statue. Another said she doesn't mind the Virgin Mary, but Saba should have sought approval. Saba's next-door neighbor, Jesus Puchalt, stuck up for him.

"If it's something sexual or offensive, I could understand, but the Virgin Mary is the Virgin Mary," said Puchalt, a Catholic. "If they keep pushing him, one day I'm going to put a cross with Jesus on it right on my front lawn."

The issue is confusing to neighbors because few, if any, have ever sought approval for lawn ornaments. Fountains, swing sets and small concrete statues dot the lawns of the otherwise uniform earth-toned brick houses.

The association does not have any printed criteria for judging what is acceptable, Canzano said. The case of the Virgin Mary now is forcing the group to re-evaluate everyone's front lawn.

Lack of criteria and the lax approval process might make the deed restriction unenforceable, said Robert Sedler, professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University. "It's possible the courts will hold that this contract is too vague."
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