Federal Lawsuit Challenges Michigan City’s Rejection of Atheist Display
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DETROIT – In an effort to protect the First Amendment rights of all Warren, Mich. residents regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs or non-beliefs, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Freedom from Religion Foundation have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s ban on an atheist booth in a city hall atrium where the city has allowed a prayer station.
The atrium has been set up by city officials as a public space that can be reserved by a wide variety of 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."
Since 2009, the city has allowed a local 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 today 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 wishes 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.
"The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith," said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. "Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another."
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.
"Our Warren member simply wants the same access to the atrium that has been granted to others, including those who operate the prayer station," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "There’s no legally justifiable reason to deny Mr. Marshall his First Amendment rights."
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 writes:
"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."
"The government can't simply silence private speakers whenever it dislikes their message," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Nobody should be excluded from their own city hall based on what they believe — or don’t believe."