Not that long ago, 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 first went up in 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.
But 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 last 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.
Last July, 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.”
Fouts’ only defense seemed to be that he had once given permission for a Ramadan display, but that didn’t excuse him from denying the atheist one.
I’m happy to report that Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk approved a settlement today that will allow the Reason Station to set up shop in City Hall. And that’s not the only big news.
The Reason Station will be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable than the terms granted to the “Prayer Station” currently allowed in the atrium space. The Reason Station will be placed at the third pillar south of the north wall of the atrium. The Reason Station’s identifying sign shall say only “Reason Station,” but there shall be no restriction on the content of the materials on the Reason Station’s table.
The City of Warren shall pay to the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan One Hundred Thousand ($100,000) dollars for costs, damages and attorney fees.
Wow… So the mayor’s intransigence and Christian Superiority Complex cost Warren taxpayers $100,000. (Keep in mind that the money is to cover court costs and attorneys’ fees, not to line the pockets of some atheists or anything like that.)
The church/state separation groups, as you might imagine, are thrilled:
“This settlement protects the rights of freethinkers and non-theists,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “And it’s also an important reminder to government bodies that they must play fair when it comes to freedom of speech. They don’t have the right to favor religious viewpoints over others.”
“We’re delighted to see equality and reason prevail in Warren,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We admire Douglas Marshall for his gumption in pursuing this, are grateful for the wonderful representation by the ACLU of Michigan and look forward to working with Douglas and other area members in erecting a reason station in the city hall atrium.”
“This result is a complete win for our side and for the First Amendment,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “It makes clear that city hall should be open to everyone — not just those who share government officials’ religious beliefs.”
No comment yet from Mayor Fouts, whose official website claims his philosophy is “We work for Warren taxpayers.”
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)