The last few years have seen several battles over church/state separation in Warren, Michigan, where the mayor could hardly be more obvious in wanting his office to give official endorsement to Christianity and keep atheists from having equal access to the public square. AU, the ACLU and FFRF have filed another lawsuit.
In an effort to protect the First Amendment rights of all Warren, Mich. residents regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs or non-beliefs, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Freedom from Religion Foundation have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s ban on an atheist booth in a city-hall atrium where the city has allowed a prayer station.
The atrium has been set up by city officials as a public space that can be reserved by a wide variety of groups and individuals, including civic organizations and Warren residents, but the mayor is not allowing an atheist to use space in the atrium because his belief system “is not a religion.”
Since 2009, the city has allowed a local church group to run a prayer station in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby, and discuss their religious beliefs with people who approach the station. The lawsuit filed today does not seek to have the prayer station removed, but instead asks the court to order the city to treat believers and non-believers equally.
“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. “For instance, Warren officials would not be permitted to grant access to activists supportive of the mayor and reject the applications of activists who are critical of the mayor. The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Douglas Marshall, a Warren resident whose request to install a “reason station” was rejected by the city. Marshall wishes to set up a station that is similar in size, structure and function to the prayer station – a folding table and chairs with literature on display and available to the public – except that his station will offer information and opportunities for discussion from a non-religious perspective.
“The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another.”
You can read the full complaint here.