WARREN, Mich. — Three prominent church-state separation groups have filed suit against a Michigan mayor for denying the request of an atheist activist to erect a ‘reason station’ near an existing ‘prayer station’ at city hall.
As previously reported, Warren resident and member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) Douglas Marshall submitted a request earlier this year to the Downtown Development Authority to use the atrium at city hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to run a “reason station,” where he would promote free thought. However, according to reports, Marshall requested the same times that the “prayer station” is utilized to offer prayers for residents.
Mayor Jim Fouts denied the request, stating that Marshall’s display was meant to purposefully interfere with the “prayer station” and could lead to disruption. He remarked that FFRF seeks to remove God from public life and he would not allow Marshall, whom he called a “designated hitter” for the organization, to succeed in the group’s efforts in his city.
“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,” Fouts wrote. “The City of Warren cannot allow this.”
“I believe it is this group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the prayer station, which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment,” he continued. “For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request.”
Marshall told the Detroit News that he has complained about the presence of the “prayer station” in the past.
“I have complained to the mayor that I thought it was a violation of the Constitution for the city to allow public property to be used by a church to proselytize their religion,” he said.
Following the denial, Marshall asserted that Fouts’ refusal was a violation of his right to free speech, and denied that FFRF had anything to do with his request for the “reason station.”
Now, FFRF, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) have banded to file a federal lawsuit against the city over the matter.
“The government can’t simply silence private speakers whenever it dislikes their message,” stated Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a press release on Wednesday. “Nobody should be excluded from their own city hall based on what they believe—or don’t believe.”
This is not the first time that Marshall has tussled with Fouts. In 2011, he and FFRF sued the City of Warren for denying his request to place a Winter Solstice sign near an outdoor nativity scene.
“There are no Gods, no devils, no angels, no Heaven or Hell,” the sign was to read. “There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
The federal courts ruled in favor of the city, noting that the majority of the city’s Christmas scenery was secular in nature anyway.