FFRF to appeal dismissal of nativity scene suit

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., plans to appeal the decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati.

FFRF filed a federal lawsuit in December 2011, charging Mayor James Fouts of Warren, Mich., with government censorship of its nonreligious views and unlawful endorsement of religion. On May 31, 2011, Judge Lawrence Zatkoff issued a ruling granting the city’s motion for summary judgment. FFRF will appeal his decision.

The city hosts a yearly holiday display in the atrium of the Warren Civic Center. The display includes “Christmas trees, ribbons, ornaments, a ‘Winter Welcome’ sign, a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, a Santa’s mailbox, snowmen, wreaths with lights, bushels of poinsettias, candy canes, wrapped gift boxes, a ‘prayer station,’ and a Nativity Scene.” A plaque indicates that the display is “sponsored and provided by the Warren Rotary Club.”

FFRF sued the city after the city denied placement of FFRF’s Winter Solstice display in the atrium.

Zatkoff ruled that FFRF and local plaintiff Douglas Marshall did have standing to sue but denied a free speech claim: “Plaintiffs, however, do not have an unlimited right to express their private speech on government property.”

Zatkoff ruled the atrium display was a limited public forum. “The government may restrict speech in a limited public forum as long as the restrictions do ‘not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint’ and are ‘reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum.’

“There is nothing indicating to the Court that the Holiday Display was intended as a forum for religious or political debate and consequently, non-celebratory advocacy and political statements are properly excluded Court found the exclusion of the Winter Solstice sign to be reasonable because its political nature does not comport with the purpose of the overall display — to celebrate the holiday season and promote good will.

“The purpose of the Holiday Display is to celebrate the holiday season, not to act as a catalyst for religious debate,” Zatkoff ruled.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that Mayor James Fouts has been involved in several other state-church entanglements. “He’s shown good will only to people who are religious.

“Fouts may not set up a ‘limited public forum’ open to all religions while barring nonbelievers or critics of religion.”

FFRF greatly appreciates the pro bono work of the Butzel Long law firm, Gaylor added.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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