On Monday, I was exchanging emails with Jeff Seaver, executive director of CFI Michigan, about a lawsuit filed in Warren, Michigan because the city has a “prayer station” in city hall but refused to allow a resident to set up a “reason station.” I’m the chair of the group’s advocacy committee and this is one situation we wanted to keep an eye on.
Jeff asked me the status of the case and I told him that it was supposed to go to trial in March. And I told him that Warren has a history of this sort of thing and tends to fight to the death on them, so it’s unlikely to settle the case. Turns out I was wrong. Literally within hours, FFRF put out a press release saying the case had been settled:
In a victory for religious freedom, a federal judge today approved a settlement requiring the City of Warren to allow an atheist to set up a “reason station” inside city hall after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued in response to city officials’ efforts to allow only a “prayer station” to operate inside the public building. In the settlement, city officials reversed course and agreed to provide the “reason station” with full, equal access to the building.
“This settlement serves as a reminder that government officials have no business deciding which religious messages can and cannot be allowed into our public spaces,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Michigan and lead counsel in the lawsuit filed on behalf of Warren resident Douglas Marshall. “The First Amendment guarantees us all the right to speak freely about our beliefs—or lack thereof. Mr. Marshall should be lauded for resisting the mayor’s attempt to silence him by favoring religious groups over non-religious groups.”
The settlement approved today by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk requires Warren city officials to treat non-believers and believers equally by permitting Marshall to establish a secular alternative to the “prayer station” that the city has allowed a church group to run in the atrium of city hall since 2009.
“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.”
For six years, the city has permitted volunteers at the “prayer station” to distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss their religious beliefs with those who approach the station. Marshall, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, submitted an application to city officials last April to reserve atrium space for two days a week. He planned to offer philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system.
But less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application—although nearly identical to the application submitted by the church sponsoring the prayer station—was rejected by Warren Mayor James Fouts. In his rejection letter, Fouts accused Marshall of “intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion.”
Fouts is an idiot with a long history of this sort of thing, but apparently the city’s attorneys convinced him they had no chance of winning this case. They first tried to get the case dismissed by claiming that the prayer station was government speech, apparently not smart enough to realize that doing so creates a serious Establishment Clause problem.