The city of Warren and its Mayor James Fouts was fined $100,000 for denying permission to an atheist, who wanted to set up a reason station next to a Christian prayer station at the city hall. Warren resident Douglas Marshall had sought permission to set up the reason station, citing his own belief in free thought as an alternative to God.
Fouts turned down Marshall’s request, saying the yearly nativity scene, the prayer station and the annual day for prayer was allowed at the city hall because of Americans’ constitutional right to freedom of religion. He said any religious group could access the atrium but not Marshall’s group, Freedom from Religion Foundation, as he did not consider free thought to be a religion.
“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,” Fouts had said.
Marshall, who too wanted the opportunity like his religious counterparts to hand out literature about atheism and have debates with passers-by, reported the incident to FFRF. Thereafter, FFRF along with American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against Warren and Fouts.
Judge Michael Hluchaniuk ruled earlier this month that the reason station be allowed to operate the same way any other religious group would be allowed to do so at the atrium and fined Warren $100,000 for damages, legal costs and attorney fees.
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American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan along with two other secular groups sued the city of Warren as well as its mayor Jim Fouts after an atheist resident was not allowed to set up a reason station next to a long-standing prayer station at City Hall. Even though Fouts has allowed a Christian group to distribute religious pamphlets and believers to pray in the City Hall atrium since 2009, he rejected a similar proposal by Douglas Marshall who is a member of Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
ACLU has received support from FFRF as well as Americans United for Separation of Church and State in filing the lawsuit, which alleges that Fouts violated Marshall’s First Amendment rights by promoting traditional religion over atheism.
According to the lawsuit that was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, “Defendants' decision made Mr. Marshall feel unwelcome at the Civic Center, an outsider in the community, a second-class citizen in Warren, and a disfavored member of a religious minority group. Mr. Marshall further objects to his tax payments supporting the operation and maintenance of a facility that Defendants control in a discriminatory manner that advances traditional religious beliefs over atheistic beliefs.”
In a statement that was released soon after, Fouts defended Warren’s authorization of a prayer station as a source of guidance for city residents.
“They are just there if someone wishes to seek solace or guidance from them. The atheist station does not serve that purpose. It will not contribute to community values or helping an individual out,” he said.
He also went on to compare atheists with white supremacists and Nazis, arguing that allowing Marshall to set up his reason station would be fundamentally opposed to prayer.
“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. I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here,” added Fouts.
Marshall is now seeking preliminary as well as permanent injunctions ordering Warren to allow the reason station to operate at City Hall just as the existing prayer station does.