Rejected atheist booth in city hall draws lawsuit

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.