Michigan city sued after rejecting 'reason station' at city hall

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Warren Mayor James Fouts. - PHOTO: Courtesy

A coalition of civil liberties groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a ban on an atheist booth in the atrium of city hall in Warren, Michigan. The city has allowed a prayer station in the atrium.

City officials set up the atrium as a public space that can be reserved by groups and individuals, including civic organizations and Warren residents, but the mayor is not allowing an atheist to use space in the atrium because he claims that his belief system "is not a religion," according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Freedom from Religion Foundation are the groups that brought the federal complaint.

Since 2009, the city has allowed a church group to run a prayer station in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss their religious beliefs with people who approach the station.

The lawsuit filed on July 23 does not seek to have the prayer station removed, but instead asks the court to order the city to treat believers and non-believers equally. 

"Once the government opens public space for use by private groups, it cannot pick and choose who can use the space based on the content of their message or whether public officials agree with that message," said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. "For instance, Warren officials would not be permitted to grant access to activists supportive of the mayor and reject the applications of activists who are critical of the mayor. The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Douglas Marshall, a Warren resident whose request to install a "reason station" was rejected by the city. Marshall wants to set up a station that is similar in size, structure, and function to the prayer station — a folding table and chairs with literature on display and available to the public — except that his station will offer information and opportunities for discussion from a non-religious perspective.

In April 2014, Marshall submitted an application to city officials to reserve space in the atrium for two days a week. According to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Marshall and other volunteers who operate the reason station would offer to have philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system.

Less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application, although nearly identical to the application submitted by the prayer station volunteers, was rejected by Warren Mayor James Fouts. In the rejection letter, Mayor Fouts wrote: "To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this."

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United, said, "The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith," said"Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another."