FFRF sues Warren mayor over crèche display, censorship

On behalf of a local member, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, Dec. 22, charging Mayor James R. Fouts, of Warren, Mich., with government censorship of its nonreligious views and unlawful endorsement of religion. FFRF seeks a preliminary injunction 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.

The lawsuit, FFRF v. City of Warren, was filed Thursday in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, by the firm of Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which is representing both 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 responded Wednesday, Dec. 21, to a demand letter sent on Tuesday 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 it the Warren City hall atrium.”

FFRF's Winter Solstice sign, specifically coined to counter religious displays on government property, reads:

"At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The legal 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 complained about the nativity display in the city hall 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 in the city hall atrium.

The complaint called Fouts’ denial of a permit to Marshall “an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on plaintiffs’ expression in a traditional public forum.” As the Supreme Court has held, “a principle at the heart of the Establishment Clause [is] that government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.” The mayor’s preference for the nativity display, and discriminatory practice against the plaintiffs also denies them equal protection under the law.

“As a result, Defendants send a clear message to Plaintiffs that they are outsiders and not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message that those who favor the Christian religion are insiders and favored members of the political community.”

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

Commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president: “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.”

Read entire complaint
Read injunction request

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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