Federal court OKs equal access for Michigan atheist

In a victory for religious freedom, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hluchaniuk approved a settlement Feb. 23 ordering the city of Warren, Mich., to let an atheist set up a “reason station” in city hall after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the city for allowing only a “prayer station” in the public building.

The settlement requires the city to treat nonbelievers equally by permitting plaintiff and FFRF member Douglas Marshall to establish a secular alternative to the “prayer station” a church group has staffed since 2009.

The city has permitted prayer station volunteers to distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss religious beliefs with them. Marshall submitted an application last April to reserve atrium space for two days a week. He planned to offer philosophical discussions with those who expressed an interest in a secular belief system.

Less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application, although nearly identical to one submitted by the church sponsoring the prayer station. was rejected by 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 publicly compared atheists to Nazis: “Just like I allow a celebration of Martin Luther King to go in city hall. I would not allow someone from the White Citizens Council, the Klu Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party to put up a stand, because they disparage other ethnic groups.” Noting that the atrium was established as a public space to be reserved by a wide variety of groups and individuals, the ACLU of Michigan and the national ACLU worked with Americans United and FFRF to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in July 2014.

The settlement says the secular station must “be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable” than terms granted to the prayer station and “there shall be no restriction on the content of the materials” on its table. The city agreed to pay the ACLU Fund of Michigan $100,000 for costs, damages and attorney fees.

“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.

“We’re delighted to see equality and reason prevail in Warren,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “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 settlement protects the rights of freethinkers and nontheists,” said Alex Luchenitser, Americans United associate legal director. “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.”

“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.” The settlement doesn’t make Fouts happy. On March 4, he told C&G News that he was going to make free “In God We Trust” posters available to the public through his office.

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

Freedom From Religion Foundation