Battle over nativity worth fighting, Fouts says

Atheists drop request to force ‘Winter Solstice’ display, vow to oppose nativity in 2012

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published January 18, 2012


WARREN — Mayor Jim Fouts said his decisions to permit a nativity scene at City Hall and to deny an atheist group’s request to place a controversial “Winter Solstice” sign next to it haven’t cost the city anything yet.

But the mayor has seemingly won at least one victory already.

The crèche depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, sponsored by the Warren Rotary, remained in place for the holiday season before it was taken down as scheduled on Jan. 3.

The Winter Solstice sandwich board sign, brought to City Hall in December by Warren resident Douglas Marshall and supported by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, was never put on display.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which late last year asked a federal judge to keep the mayor from denying the sign, later withdrew that request when a hearing could not be scheduled before the nativity was removed in due course after Christmas.

“I felt that to allow them to put their sandwich board sign up was an offensive act against religion, and it wasn’t exercising freedom of religion or freedom of speech. It was exercising the desecration and destruction of religion,” Fouts said last week.

“They wanted a show-cause hearing (Jan.4). They dropped that because we indicated obviously we weren’t going to compromise. Also it was a moot question, because the following week we normally take it down anyway.”

But the group has vowed to continue challenging the constitutionality of Fouts’ decisions in 2012.

“A city cannot create a public forum to promote only religion, or only those views on religion which its mayor favors,” said Freedom From Religion Foundation co-President Dan Barker in a prepared statement.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 22, the mayor’s denial of a permit for the “Winter Solstice” sign brought to City Hall by Marshall is “an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on (Marshall’s) expression in a traditional public forum.”

The lawsuit also alleged Fouts’ denial of Marshall’s request to place the sign in the City Hall atrium next to the nativity scene violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it endorsed religious expression — in this case, the nativity scene and a “prayer station,” also at routinely placed at City Hall — while forbidding “expressions of a non-religious, or irreligious, nature.”

Fouts said the text of the solstice sign was offensive because it personally attacked the nativity and the prayer station. The message stated: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

“I believe the Constitution deals with freedom of religion, and not freedom against religion or freedom to repress religion,” Fouts said. “I think it is a battle worth fighting.”

No further date for legal action in U.S. District Court had been established last week.