For the past six years, visitors to the city hall of Warren, Mich., have encountered something few municipal buildings have: a large booth marked “Prayer Station.”
Staffed four days a week, the prayer booth offers spiritual counseling and religious literature to those visiting the building. City officials justified it by saying that residents of the economically challenged municipality need a pick-me-up.
Not everyone in town thought the Prayer Station was appropriate for city hall. One Warren resident, Douglas Marshall, decided to ask if he could set up a Reason Station. Marshall’s booth would be similar in size to the Prayer Station but would offer information about freethought instead of Christianty.
The answer from city officials was a firm no. But that is about to change. As a result of a federal lawsuit, the Detroit suburb will finally get an atheist-oriented display in city hall.
In February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk approved a settlement in Marshall v. City of Warren, which paves the way for a Reason Station to appear alongside the Christian Prayer Station. Americans United brought the suit in July alongside the ACLU of Michigan and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) after Warren’s mayor, Jim Fouts, rejected Marshall’s application to create the display.
Marshall, who identifies as an atheist, told reporters at the time that he simply wanted to provide a secular alternative to the Prayer Station. Members of the Tabernacle Church, a local Pentecostal congregation affiliated with the Church of God, have run the display since 2009; volunteers pass out religious literature and pray with interested passersby.
This seemed like an odd pairing to some in town. Church members would have the right to pass out literature in public areas or go door to door to proselytize, but why must these activities take place inside city hall?
To Marshall, the scheme amounted to an official city endorsement of a particular brand of Christianity – after all, no other religious groups were given such exclusive access to the people who work at and visit city hall. Marshall also believed that church members were recruiting new members for their congregation with the city’s help.
But Fouts saw things differently, and he didn’t mince words in his response to Marshall’s proposal to run a secular station.
“Freedom from Religion is not a religion,” Fouts wrote in a letter to Marshall, rejecting the idea. “It has no tenets, no place of worship and no congregation. 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.” (Emphasis in original.)
Fouts also accused Marshall of trying to “disrupt” the Prayer Station, an act that would, the mayor claimed, violate the First Amendment’s protections for religious freedom.
When Marshall lined up legal firepower from AU, the ACLU and FFRF, the mayor didn’t react well. After Americans United and its allies filed suit against the city of Warren, Fouts turned to the media to defend his position – and to make inflammatory remarks about atheism. (See “An Appeal To Reason,” October 2014 Church & State.)
“The city has certain values that I don’t believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Ku Klux Klan station,” Fouts told the Associated Press. “I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here.”
(Fouts later walked the comments back a bit, telling the Huffington Post that atheists could be “loyal Americans just like anybody else.” But Fouts stuck to his position on the Reason Station, insisting that it would “promote conflict, consternation and controversy.”)
In court, the three groups argued that Warren officials had opened up a forum at city hall and then tried to deny access to it. This, the groups asserted, was a clear violation of First Amendment principles.
As the case progressed, Warren officials must have realized they were fighting a losing battle. Settlement talks were opened, and the case was brought to a conclusion in late February. The settlement means that Fouts’ crusade for the Prayer Station to stand alone has finally sputtered to an end.
Hluchaniuk signed a brief settlement order, and in it he put a swift end to the mayor’s discriminatory policy.
“The Reason Station will be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable than the terms granted to the ‘Prayer Station’ currently allowed in the atrium space,” Hluchaniuk ordered. “The Reason Station’s identifying sign shall say only ‘Reason Station,’ but there shall be no restriction on the content of the materials on the Reason Station’s table.”
Americans United and its allies applauded the result as a long overdue victory for equal access and viewpoint diversity. In a joint statement, released alongside the ACLU of Michigan and FFRF, AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser hailed the settlement as an important development.
“This settlement protects the rights of freethinkers and non-theists,” said Luchenitser. “And it’s also an important reminder to government bodies that they must play fair when it comes to freedom of speech. They don’t have the right to favor religious viewpoints over others.”
Dan Korobkin, the ACLU of Michigan’s associate legal director, echoed that sentiment in the statement.
“This settlement serves as a reminder that government officials have no business deciding which religious messages can and cannot be allowed into our public spaces,” Korobkin observed. “The First Amendment guarantees us all the right to speak freely about our beliefs – or lack thereof. Mr. Marshall should be lauded for resisting the mayor’s attempt to silence him by favoring religious groups over non-religious groups.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, lauded Marshall’s “gumption” and thanked him for sticking with the lawsuit.
As for Marshall himself, he’s glad the lawsuit is over, and he looks forward to finally starting his Reason Station this spring.
“I’m happy [the city of] Warren decided to be reasonable,” Marshall told Church & State. He added that he hopes to start running the Reason Station in April, although there are some logistical obstacles to conquer first. He must re-apply to open the station and include an insurance certification with his application in order to start the display.
But he doesn’t foresee much trouble. This time, he even has help. “I’ve got at least eight volunteers,” he says with some satisfaction. Since Marshall intends to keep the station open eight hours a week, he’ll need the assistance.
His motivation for starting the station remains the same: dialogue. “I’m hoping to provide an alternative to the Prayer Station for people who have no interest in prayer but who are interested in reason and logic,” he said.
Marshall’s not sorry to put the lawsuit behind him. “I’m glad the process is over,” he added.
Many of Marshall’s allies in the freethought/humanist community are pleased he took a stand. During the annual meeting of Michigan Atheists in December in Ann Arbor, Marshall was given a special award for his efforts.
Back in Warren, Fouts has said little about the lawsuit since its resolution, but in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, he stood by his original decision to reject the station.
“I was afraid this would promote conflict in city hall,” Fouts said.
Fouts’ objection apparently stems from Marshall’s FFRF membership and FFRF’s previous attempt to erect a secular holiday scene at the Warren city hall.
“They tried to claim that they [FFRF] were a church ... and I didn’t think they fit that definition,” Fouts told the Free Press. “Irregardless, I didn’t feel at the time that it was necessary to have a Reason Station.”
Despite the fact that the city submitted to a court order ending its discriminatory conduct and requiring it to pay attorneys’ fees, Fouts insisted that he has been “victorious.”
Attorneys at Americans United disagree.
“It was inappropriate for Mayor Fouts to speak of atheism in such a disparaging manner, and he should never have rejected the Reason Station at all,” Luchenitser, who oversaw Americans United’s work in the litigation, told Church & State. “We’re glad this violation of Mr. Marshall’s rights is at an end.”
He added, “Warren is a diverse town and it’s appropriate to have a variety of beliefs represented in city hall.”