July 23, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Warren sued for refusing anti-religion display at city hall

Warren — A Warren man is suing the city in federal court, saying Mayor James Fouts violated his rights by refusing to allow an anti-religion display table in the atrium of City Hall.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Douglas Marshall by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Freedom from Religion Foundation, alleges the city is committing “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” by banning his display but allowing a longstanding prayer station.

“Defendants have favored and are favoring religion over nonreligion, and religious belief over disbelief, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the suit argues.

Marshall’s suit seeks an order requiring Warren to allow his “reason station” and to pay him an undetermined amount of damages “for violations of his First Amendment rights.”

“It seems to be that the mayor or the city doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree with us about what the First Amendment requires,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. “It not only protects all religious people but it also does not allow the government to ... show favoritism toward religion over nonreligion.”

Marshall filed a request to put up his display April 9, but Fouts rejected it, saying Marshall is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has objected to a nativity scene, the city’s observance of the annual National Day of Prayer and the prayer station.

Fouts said Wednesday he embraces diversity and openness. A Martin Luther King Jr. celebration was held in January, and a large photo of the civil rights leader hangs in the atrium. He added that a Ramadan display is in the atrium.

The mayor argues that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is not a religious entity, has no tenets, no place of worship and no congregation. He feels the group is more interested in promoting conflict and controversy.

“Apparently the ACLU just wants to make a point but my point to them is, I see no need to allow a negative group of people to come and disparage another group,” said Fouts.

After his request was rejected in April, Marshall said that while he is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Fouts was making an assumption the table would be connected to the group.

The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., says it promotes the constitutionally recognized protection of the separation of church and state.

Marshall asked for permission to put up the table for a year on Tuesdays and Thursdays — the same days the prayer station is staffed by volunteers, Fouts said in April. People can request counsel from volunteers from various religious groups at the station, he said.

Fouts said that the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in his favor in denying anti-religious displays. The ruling last February, Fouts said, includes the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Marshall as plaintiffs.