IF you were to walk into the Warren, Michigan city hall, you’d see a Prayer Station, a kiosk of sorts with pamphlets about God, manned by Christians eager to proselytize. It’s been there since 2009.
So when resident Douglas Marshall filled out an application to set up a personal “Reason Station” to promote freethought and logic, you’d think he’d get a green light, too… Hell, his application was almost word-for-word identical to that of Pastor Darius Walden, who set up the Prayer Station.
The problem is that Warren Mayor Jim Fouts is a Christian who has made a habit of opposing atheist groups that want the same treatment as religious groups.
Fouts rejected Marshall’s request in April, wrongly assuming he was doing this as part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation when he was really just doing it on his own, and saying that only religious groups had a right to put up a display in the building. His letter to Marshall was just infuriating:
In his letter, Fouts said Freedom From Religion is not a religion, has no tenets and no congregation.
“To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this,” he wrote, underlining the last sentence.
“Also, I believe it is [the] group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment. For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request,” he wrote.
So many false assumptions all around…
Marshall wasn’t doing this on behalf of FFRF.
Marshall wasn’t going to disrupt the Prayer Station.
Marshall wasn’t depriving religious groups of their freedom (nor, I assume, would he want to).
Fouts also made another unusual claim:
“We can’t put up every display that everybody wants because the atrium would be filled with displays,” Fouts said Wednesday. “I have certain discretionary rights about what I will and will not put up. And I determined that putting up an anti-religious display would serve no useful purpose. It would cause a lot of conflict and consternation.”
If a filled-up atrium is a problem, there’s a simple solution for that: Don’t allow any religious or non-religious displays.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent the Mayor a letter warning him about the problems with his decision, but they never received a response.
This wasn’t the first time Fouts promoted religion over non-religious while in office, either. He stopped FFRF from putting up a “Let Reason Prevail” sign in 2012 because he felt it was too divisive — and the courts agreed with him.
Today, a trio of church/state separation groups — FFRF, AU, and the ACLU — filed a federal lawsuit against Fouts and his town:
Defendants have imposed and are imposing a content- and viewpoint-based restriction on Plaintiff’s speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
By prohibiting Plaintiff from reserving and using atrium space because his belief system “is not a religion”… while allowing similarly situated religious groups and persons to reserve and use atrium space “because of the right to freedom of religion”… Defendants have favored and are favoring religion over nonreligion, and religious belief over disbelief, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“Once the government opens public space for use by private groups, it cannot pick and choose who can use the space based on the content of their message or whether public officials agree with that message,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. “For instance, Warren officials would not be permitted to grant access to activists supportive of the mayor and reject the applications of activists who are critical of the mayor. The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”
“The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another.”
“Our Warren member simply wants the same access to the atrium that has been granted to others, including those who operate the prayer station,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “There’s no legally justifiable reason to deny Mr. Marshall his First Amendment rights.”
I wish I could see the look on the judge’s face when s/he sees this case. When you have this much cooperation between allied groups, and the case is so obviously one-sided, I dare the judge not to roll his or her eyes.
The lawyers are asking for a preliminary injunction on the matter allowing Marshall to set up his “Reason Station” immediately.
Fouts’ only defense seems to be that he once gave permission for a Ramadan display, but that doesn’t excuse him from denying the atheist one.
Either the displays are going to stop for good, or the city hall’s atrium is going to start seeing displays from atheists and everyone else, too. (Hello, Satanic Temple…)
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier)