Federal court approves settlement requiring Warren to give atheists equal access to city hall

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.”

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 the Freedom From Religion Foundation to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court last July.

“This settlement protects the rights of freethinkers and non-theists,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “And 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.”

In addition to Korobkin, Marshall is represented by Luchenitser and Ayesha N. Khan of Americans United; Rebecca Markert and Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation; Michael J. Steinberg and Marc Allen of the ACLU of Michigan; ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney William Wertheimer; and Mach of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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