Watchdog trio challenges Michigan mayor’s veto of atheist display

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a joint federal lawsuit July 23 on behalf of FFRF member Douglas Marshall, contesting the ban of a “reason station” in a city hall atrium where the city has allowed a “prayer station.”

Since 2008, the city of Warren, Mich., has allowed Tabernacle Church, a Church of God congregation, to set up the prayer station, in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, pray with passersby and promote their religious beliefs. The lawsuit doesn’t seek to remove the prayer station but asks the court to order the city to treat believers and nonbelievers equally. 

When Marshall, a Warren resident, asked to set up a reason station in April for two days a week, he was denied a permit. According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Marshall and other volunteers who operate the reason station would offer philosophical discussions with people who express an interest in secularism.

Upon receiving news of the lawsuit, Fouts told The Associated Press: “The city has certain values that I don’t believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Ku Klux Klan station.” He added that a reason station “will not contribute to community values or helping an individual out.”

In his rejection letter, Mayor James Fouts wrote: “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.”

“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. “Regardless of one’s viewpoint, there’s no legally justifiable reason to deny Douglas Marshall his First Amendment rights.” 

Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director, said, “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. 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,” added Alex Luchenitser, Americans United associate legal director. 

“The government can’t simply silence private speakers whenever it dislikes their message,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Nobody should be excluded from their own city hall based on what they believe, or don’t believe.” 

In addition to Korobkin, Luchenitser and Mach, Marshall is represented by Ayesha Khan of Americans United, Rebecca Markert and Patrick Elliott of FFRF and Michael Steinberg, Kary Moss and William Wertheimer of the ACLU of Michigan. 

To read the legal complaint and motion for preliminary injunction:

Freedom From Religion Foundation