Rejected atheist booth in Mich. city hall draws lawsuit

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WARREN, Mich. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan and two other groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking an injunction against a Michigan city’s ban on an atheist booth in a municipal building.

The groups said the Detroit suburb of Warren lets a church group run a “prayer station,” distribute religious materials, discuss religious beliefs and pray with visitors in a City Hall atrium but refuses to let atheist Douglas Marshall use the same space.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation also are part of the lawsuit in U.S. District Court that says Marshall’s request in April to install a “reason station” was rejected by Mayor Jim Fouts.

“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, adding “The city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”

Fouts told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Marshall’s “reason station” would be diametrically 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,” Fouts said. “I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here.”

The city of Warren is just north of Detroit in Macomb County, and has a population of about 140,000 people.

The city doesn’t endorse the “prayer station,” but has allowed religious groups to set up tables in the atrium for several years, according to Fouts.

“They don’t walk up to people,” Fouts said. “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.”

In December 2011, Warren prohibited the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation from displaying an anti-religion sign next to a nativity scene at City Hall. A federal judge later ruled Fouts had authority to bar the poster because he felt it was antagonistic and would cause hostility.

The judge also said city officials were not excluding a religious group or a non-religious group.

Fouts said the issue is not about his faith or one faith. The city allows Ramadan displays during the Islamic holy month.

“I’m a Christian but I believe in freedom of religion for all groups,” he said.

 

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