Freethinker of the Year Award

Douglas Marshall – 2015

Douglas Marshall will receive a Freethinker of the Year Award as the plaintiff in FFRF's recent federal court victory, forcing the town of Warren, Mich., to let him put up a Reason Station to counter an ongoing prayer booth that dominates the atrium of his city hall. Doug has identified as an atheist since the age of 40. He was previously a plaintiff in the 2011 case, FFRF & Marshall v. City of Warren, concerning the censorship of FFRF's winter solstice sign by the city. He directs the Warren Reason Station. He graduated from Tri State College, Ind., with a business degree in 1967, served in the U.S. Army for two years, and retired in 2005 as a marketing analyst in the trucking and logistics industry.

FFRF's 2015 Freethinker of the Year Award

'No small violations of the Constitution'

Douglas Marshall was the plaintiff in FFRF's federal court victory that forced the city of Warren, Mich., to allow him to put up a "Reason Station" in the City Hall atrium to counter a longtime prayer booth. He also was previously a plaintiff in the FFRF's 2011 case against the city of Warren over censorship of FFRF's Winter Solstice sign. Douglas graduated from Tri State College in Indiana and served in the U.S. Army for two years. He retired in 2005 as a marketing analyst in the trucking and logistics industry.
Douglas' speech, edited for space, was delivered on Oct. 10, 2015, at the FFRF national convention in Madison, Wis.

By Douglas Marshall

As shown in the recent Pew Study, America is becoming more diverse in its religious beliefs and there is an increase in those who do not believe in any deity or religion. This causes many of the religious to try to insert their beliefs in the public arena. They do this because they can see that membership is dwindling and feel that they need to make America a theocracy in order to maintain their dominance. Public officials assist this by giving public space to the favored religious group to grant the authority of the governmental unit to that religion. Public school teachers add creationism to their science classes, read bible passages in class, pass out religious literature, promote clubs like the Good News Club or add religious songs to seasonal presentations.
We must be on the watch for violations of the First Amendment's separation of church and state at all times and challenge them whenever they appear.

A secular nation

Our country was not established as a Christian nation, but as a secular nation. Many of our Founding Fathers were revolutionaries with deist beliefs. They saw the problems that official religions bring and wanted to make sure that those problems would not be tolerated in this new country.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ," and the 14th Amendment, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." The First Amendment forbids laws (rules or privileges) respecting religion and the 14th Amendment conveys that along to state and local governmental units.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to support our government and its underlying Constitution if we want to live under that document. It has been noted by someone "that if we lose our freedoms it will not be in a big slash of a sword but by many small cuts which we ignore at the time." The Christians and offending parties will complain that we are nitpicking and if these violations offend us, we should just close our eyes, look the other way and remain quiet. I reply that there are no small violations of the Constitution and that every one must be addressed.

I was confronted with a situation in Warren, Mich., where I live. The city was giving space in the city hall atrium to a religious group to promote its religion. When I complained about this establishment violation, I was told that the area was a free speech area open to all, and it would be a violation of the church's right to speech to deny them access. At that time, in the spring of 2009, I contacted FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, who wrote a complaint to the city and received a similar response. It was that initial involvement that caused me to join FFRF.

I then asked about the availability to have similar access, I found that I needed an insurance liability policy in the amount of $1 million and an additional $10,000 in medical insurance to which I would need to add the city and Downtown Development Authority on as additional insureds. As an individual, I have no need for general liability insurance, so the cost of such insurance would be prohibitive. Also, the city had an unreasonable charge for the whole atrium, which they wanted to apply to displays by individual residents, but waived for churches and nonprofits. Confronted with these obstacles, I was unable to challenge the violating party with my own speech. Two years ago at the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, I met with Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and asked if FFRF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was willing to add me, the city and the city's Downtown Development Authority to its insurance policy for a Reason Station. Once I knew that I had the insurance requirement covered, I was able to make my application for a display.

Ready in advance

From the start, I knew that the city was only using the public space story as justification for allowing the violation of the Establishment Clause, and I suspected that my application would be denied out of hand. Believing that this would be the case, I contacted the local ACLU in advance to determine what its response would be if I was denied use of the facility by the city. The ACLU would not make any commitment prior to something happening, but stated it wanted to know if my application for equal access was denied. I also contacted the local representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State for its assessment and was advised that it, too, wanted to be notified if my application was denied. Now that I had contacted these three organizations and was sure of my legal standing, I was ready to present my application for the space.

Because Patrick Elliott of FFRF had obtained copies of the church's application for me, I was able to duplicate the application of the Prayer Station for my Reason Station. When the time was appropriate, I sent in my application for a Reason Station by certified mail. As I had expected, a week later I received a letter from the mayor stating that my application was being denied. As a bonus, the mayor stated the application was being denied because I was an atheist and a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The mayor knew this because we had been to court before over the solstice display a year earlier. This was perfect; the city was denying my right of speech 1) because of my religious views and 2) because of my membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The denial was clearly a violation of my religious rights, my right to speak and right of association as stated in the First Amendment, and denial of equal protection under the law as stated in the 14th Amendment.

When I received the letter of denial, I was ready and emailed all the documents to FFRF, Americans United and the ACLU. I knew that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was behind me, but it did not have a local attorney to handle the case. Americans United was the first to respond with a letter to the mayor and city within four hours from the receipt of my complaint. About a week later I received a call from the ACLU to interview me to make sure that I was honorable and that I was involved based on principle, as opposed to looking for personal gain. Within about three weeks from my email, I had all three organizations offering to represent me and I was able to coordinate the three organizations to work together with an additional local attorney on my case. I signed an agreement for these organizations to represent me. I believe that this was the first time that all three organizations have worked together on a single case.

Remaining polite

One of the things that I have done in working on this situation was to always remain polite when dealing with government officials and anyone involved. I always kept my temper in check, never raised my voice, and always said "Thank you" or "No thank you" in all my dealings. This did not stop the city from claiming in its response to the lawsuit that the real reason I was denied the use of the space was that I was an obnoxious, threatening person and only wanted to create a disturbance. One of the penalties with challenging an Establishment Clause violation is that the religious establishment and governmental unit spread all manner of things as a reason to discredit me. These unwarranted accusations were later discredited in the deposition portion of disclosure, leaving only the original reasons as stated in the mayor's letter.

The mayor, during interviews with reporters both immediately after his rejection letter and also after I filed in federal court, compared atheists, FFRF, and by extension, me, to Nazis and the KKK. In the last few years there have been many comparisons to Hitler or Nazis by various individuals in our country. My feeling has always been if a person compares an opponent to Hitler or Nazis, he is just publicly stating that he has no knowledge of either and has nothing else to justify whatever he is proposing or defending. The comparison did hit the news, and, after the initial news reports, the mayor backtracked.

When I sent in my application for the Reason Station I was sure that the mayor would reject my application. At the time it was the best thing that hecould have done for me. I was in no position to buy the necessary items such as easels, tables, chairs, signs and table displays. I did not have a group of people organized to staff the Reason Station at that time. Had the mayor approved my initial request, I would have been unable to buy all the necessary equipment and did not have a group of volunteers to staff the table. Without any of this, I would have been hard-pressed to set it up myself and staff it for the long run. The mayor's rejection and lawsuit gave me the publicity to obtain volunteers and, upon victory, the money to buy the equipment.

City gives in

In settlement talks demanded by the court, the city capitulated on my demands and the only thing that I had to give up was that the main sign would only say "Reason Station," but that there would be no restrictions on what was on the table for display or distribution. Even with the city paying all legal fees and damages, I was amazed that the mayor was claiming victory. Sometimes solutions happen speedily, others take time. I first complained about the Prayer Station in April 2009 and was not able to win a victory in court until this year.

The downside to asking for equal access is that once it is won, I must provide and staff the display. FFRF has supplied non-tracts, issues of Freethought Today and other materials for the Reason Station. My U.S. representative and a senator had supplied copies of the Constitution and state representatives had supplied Michigan's Constitution. I have used some of the damages to provide signage, table displays and other equipment required. Hopefully, if my table displays are designed properly, sooner or later the city will determine that the city hall atrium is not an appropriate place for discussion as to whether or not a deity exists. The true meaning of the Reason Station is that 1) It takes away the governmental endorsement which the Prayer Station had previously had; 2) It puts atheists in public view so that citizens can see that we are ordinary people, and; 3) It lets other atheists, who are in the closet or feel alone, know that they are not alone.
Reason Station opens

After a minor correction required in the insurance certificate, the city approved my application for the Reason Station. On the first day we had about eight visitors to the display, all of which thanked us. On the second day two other atheists stopped by specifically to thank us for our efforts in getting the Reason Station in City Hall. Some of these people have gone on to become volunteers. Another woman, who described herself as a regular Christian who attended weekly church services, stopped by to thank us for all our efforts in setting up the Reason Station. There is rarely a day in which someone does not stop by to thank us for being there. A few weeks after opening, a lady from California in the Detroit area on family business specifically drove to Warren to visit the Reason Station and thank us all for being there. So many have stopped and the response has been so positive, that I feel rewarded for all the time and work it has taken to start the Reason Station.

The first day of operation was April 28, 2015. On that day, we were using a card table of my mother's — which was over 60 years old — and a variety of folding chairs. There was not much room for all the material that we had to display. Later, one of the volunteers set up a staffing format on Volunteer Spot so that all the scheduling is done via the Internet. I have created a business card with the staffing website which I give out to prospective volunteers. They can handle the commitment themselves or they can email or phone me and I will handle it for them. I would eventually buy a portable six-foot display table, new lighter chairs, and a portable two-wheel dolly to help in moving the display items. When I ordered the easel for the sign, I also ordered smaller easels to be used as table displays.

Table display quotes

On the first day of operation, the table display was a quote by Benjamin Franklin. Starting on the National Day of Prayer, we had a table display with Matthew 6:5, which we used the rest of May. Other than the staff at the Reason Station, few seemed to get what Matthew was referencing. In June, we added a Thomas Jefferson quote to the table displays, and also started having two table displays with the second one being Epicurus. In July we replaced Epicurus with a statement by Marcus Aurelius. Recently we have added a Susan B. Anthony statement. Eventually I hope to have different table displays for each month of the year. I am planning to have the "Let Reason Prevail" solstice verbiage in the atrium this solstice holiday season.

At no time have I ever wished to promote my views on the existence or nonexistence of a deity. Although I am not ashamed of my opinion that there are no deities (based on the lack of evidence), I do not broadcast my views except when asked or confronted.
I have no issue with what anyone wants to believe, or their right to meet in churches or their homes to discuss and practice their beliefs. If people want to put up signs on their lawns or purchase billboard space to expound their beliefs, it causes me no harm. As Thomas Jefferson said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." I do have a problem with people who want to use government facilities to promote their religious beliefs and add the implication that the government endorses those beliefs and practices. The only reason I asked for a space for the Reason Station is to take away that governmental endorsement of a religion.

I need to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United, the ACLU and all the attorneys for making the Reason Station possible. Most of all, I want to thank the volunteers who staff the Reason Station for all their time and effort. Without those volunteers, all the work in getting the Reason Station would be for nothing, as they are the Reason Station.

Finally, if we want to live in a country where we have freedom of conscience and the right to express those opinions, we must remain alert to any violation of those rights. We need to be First Amendment warriors challenging violations of the Bill of Rights whenever they occur. Remember, there are no small violations of the Bill of Rights, and if we want those rights, we cannot close our eyes to the violations.

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