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Atheists will have spot in Warren City Hall in April

Ursula Watson
The Detroit News

Warren — Reason and religion will coexist in city hall’s atrium this spring after an eight-month legal battle.

Warren resident Douglas Marshall has won the right to set up a table where he will espouse non-religious views. He’s been fighting for the right to do so to counter a prayer station that’s been there for six years.

“What will be there is an alternative to the prayer station, which promotes Christianity,” Marshall said. “I will not be there to convert anybody to atheism.”

The reason table will be staffed by Marshall and other volunteers from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays as early as April, he said.

Mayor Jim Fouts opposed the reason table because he said the group behind the effort, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which Marshall is a member, is not a religious entity, has no tenets, no place of worship and no congregation.

Fouts said he was concerned the request included the placement of the anti-religion table next to the prayer station and a sandwich board disparaging religion, which Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, denies.

“I didn’t want it to cause disruption,” Fouts said. “As it stands now, we have peaceful coexistence. The reason station will not be located next to the prayer station.”

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in July on behalf of Marshall, saying Fouts violated Marshall’s rights by refusing to allow him to set up an anti-religion display table in the atrium.

Last week, a federal magistrate ordered city officials to allow Marshall space for his display. Along with an easel that will read “Reason Station,” there will also be literature from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

According to the ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk, the reason station will be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable than the terms granted the prayer station. The reason station will be placed at the third pillar south of the north wall of the atrium. Operation of both tables will be governed by the same rental policies and rules.

The city was also ordered to pay $100,000 to the ACLU Fund of Michigan for damages, costs and attorney fees, said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of ACLU of Michigan.

The money will come out of the city’s general fund, Fouts said.

“This was really a case about treating people equally regardless of whether they have religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs,” Korobkin said.

In addition to the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State also sponsored the lawsuit and provided attorneys to work on the case, he said.

Marshall filed a request to put up his display last April, 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.

“We won two previous court cases against them (Freedom From Religion Foundation),” Fouts said. “They first tried to take away the nativity scene and we won in Federal District Court. Then they appealed it and then we won in the Federal Court of Appeals.”

The prayer station is non-denominational, Fouts said, and its purpose is to allow people to seek solace and counseling. People can request counsel from volunteers from various religious groups.

“I am not happy with the court order but it is a court order,” Fouts said. “It is a victory of freedom of religion and the city of Warren. The nativity scene is intact and the prayer station is intact.”

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