The city of Warren, Michigan, and its Republican mayor Jim Fouts are facing a federal lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups after Fouts rejected a local man’s request to set up an atheist station in the city hall atrium, and equated the atheist cause to the Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan.
Since 2009, Fouts has permitted “prayer stations” run by a local church group that distributes religious pamphlets, discusses religious beliefs with passersby, and prays with visitors to the city hall. When Freedom From Religion member Douglas Marshall submitted an application to city officials in April to set up a similar, yet secular, station for two days each week, it took Fouts less than two weeks to reject his proposal. When interviewed by the Associated Press, Fouts defended his decision, saying:
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.
Marshall’s aim in reserving the space at city hall was to offer information and encourage discussion from a “non-religious perspective” counter to the prayer station run by the local church group. But in his rejection letter, Fouts wrote that the intent of Marshall’s station was to “deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion” and said the city of Warren cannot allow this to happen. He said that while the prayer station helps citizens “seek solace or guidance,” Marshall’s station won’t “contribute to community values or helping an individual out.”
The ACLU, along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a lawsuit against Fouts and the city of Warren Wednesday claiming the mayor’s rejection violated Marshall’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
“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. “… The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”
(h/t Huffington Post)
Shannon Greenwood is an intern at ThinkProgress.