Judge OKs atheist’s ‘reason station’ in city hall

Volunteer Linda Westfall, left, 57, prays with Lynn Pazdziora, 42, at the prayer station in the lobby of Warren City Hall in 2009.

WARREN, Mich. — If a church can have a prayer station inside city hall, then an atheist can have a reason station there, too.

That’s what a federal judge concluded Monday in ordering the city of Warren to allow an atheist man to set up a so-called “reason station” in the atrium at city hall, similar to the one his religious counterparts have.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk never mentioned the words “freedom of religion” or “separation of church and state” in his order, but rather focused on ensuring that believers and non-believers receive the same type of access to city hall.

“The reason station will be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable than the terms granted to the prayer station,” wrote Hluchaniuk, who also ordered the city of Warren to pay the ACLU $100,000 for costs and attorney fees.

The case involves Warren resident Douglas Marshall, who sued the city of Warren and Mayor James Fouts last summer after his request to set up a “reason station” inside city hall was denied. Fouts feared the atheist man’s table would discourage the practice of religion and create chaos in city hall, so he rejected his application for a station.

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The American Civil Liberties Union intervened and filed a lawsuit on Marshall’s behalf, arguing that city officials do not have the right to decide which religious message can and cannot be allowed into public spaces.

“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,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Fouts, who said he would abide by the judge’s order and allow the reason station to exist, explained his opposition. Marshall, he said, wanted to place an “antagonistic, anti-religion” sign next to the prayer station.

“I was afraid this would promote conflict in city hall,” Fouts said.

Fouts also questioned the legitimacy of Marshall’s group: the Freedom From Religious Foundation, which has unsuccessfully contested a nativity scene on city property, the prayer station and annual day of prayer at city hall.

“They tried to claim that they were a church … And I didn’t think they fit that definition,” Fouts said, noting Marshall’s group has no tenet or congregation. “Irregardless, I didn’t feel at the time that it was necessary to have a reason station.”.

He added;.

“The bottom line is we have a prayer station. We have a nativity scene. And I feel we have been victorious,” Fouts said. “That was very important to me.”.

When Marshall first submitted his request to the city, Fouts wrote him a letter explaining his opposition:.

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“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 wrote, underlining the last sentence.

“Also, I believe it is group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the prayer station, which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment. For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request,” Fouts wrote.

That, the ACLU has argued, is unconstitutional.

According to the ACLU, for the last six years, the city of Warren has allowed volunteers at the prayer station to distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss their religious beliefs with those who approach the station. Marshall wanted the same kind of table, where he could offer philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system.

But Fouts said no, so the ACLU intervened, along with Americans United and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“It’s … An important reminder to government bodies that they must play fair when it comes to freedom of speech,” Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United, said of today’s court order. “They don’t have the right to favor religious viewpoints over others.”.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, also hailed the judge’s order, calling it a First Amendment victory.

“It makes clear that city hall should be open to everyone — not just those who share government officials’ religious beliefs.”.

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