FFRF sues Michigan city over banner denial

On behalf of a Michigan member, FFRF filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 22, charging Mayor James Fouts of Warren with government censorship of its nonreligious views and unlawful endorsement of religion.

FFRF sought to enjoin the mayor from continuing to establish religion “by allowing public displays of only religious symbols” and to order him to allow placement of FFRF’s Winter Solstice display.

FFRF v. City of Warren was filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, by the firm of Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, which is representing FFRF and its member plaintiff pro bono. FFRF alleges censorship, establishment of Christianity and denial of equal protection under the law by the city of Warren.

The mayor had responded Dec. 21 to a demand letter sent by attorney Danielle Hessell with a letter that called FFRF’s sign “highly offensive.” Fouts, amusingly, compared FFRF’s request to place its sign saying “There are no gods” to putting up a “sandwich board saying that there is no Santa Claus.” Fouts stated, “I cannot and will not sanction the desecration of religion in the Warren City Hall atrium.”

The complaint summarizes the chronology of the mayor’s endorsement of religion and censorship of the views of FFRF and its member Douglas Marshall of Warren, a named plaintiff. FFRF protested the nativity display in the atrium more than a year ago, eventually receiving a response on Dec. 8, 2010, in which Fouts wrote that “all religions are welcome to celebrate their religious seasons with a display in City Hall.” Marshall tried in vain repeatedly to obtain permission to place the FFRF sign there.

The complaint called Fouts’ denial of a permit to Marshall “an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on plaintiffs’ expression in a traditional public forum.” The mayor’s preference for the nativity display, and discriminatory practice against the plaintiffs also denies them equal protection under the law.

FFRF asks the court to find that the city has violated the rights of FFRF and its member, and to award nominal damages and reasonable attorney’s fees.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, commented, “The mayor appears to operate under the mistaken belief that he’s a mini-pope or religious grand pooh-bah who may use his secular office to bless or veto religious expression. Using government power to promote religion and hinder criticism of religion is tyrannical, and is precisely what our secular Constitution prohibits.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation