Settlement paves way for atheist display at City Hall

Mayor claims victory, says “prayer station” and nativity scene are now protected

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published February 25, 2015

 The city of Warren has allowed the prayer station at City Hall to operate since February 2009.

The city of Warren has allowed the prayer station at City Hall to operate since February 2009.

File photo by Brian Louwers

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WARREN — Visitors at Warren’s City Hall could soon get to choose between listening to “reason” or pausing for prayer.

A settlement reached in federal court Feb. 23 now requires the city to approve a Warren resident’s request to host a “reason station” in the City Hall atrium, in the same way the city has allowed a “prayer station” to exist for years.

Last spring, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts denied the request by resident Douglas Marshall to place a table in the atrium that offered, in Marshall’s words, “literature about free thought, reason and the separation of church and state.”

Marshall, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, later filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the denial, alleging it violated Marshall’s right to free speech.

The city has allowed the prayer station to operate in the atrium since February 2009. It’s staffed by volunteers from local churches.

In a prepared statement, the ACLU called the settlement a “victory for religious freedom,” and ACLU Deputy Legal Director Dan Korobkin, who served as the lead attorney in the case, said Marshall should be “lauded for resisting the mayor’s attempts to silence him by favoring religious groups over non-religious groups.”

“This settlement serves as a reminder that government officials have no business deciding which religious messages can and cannot be allowed into our public spaces,” Korobkin said. “The First Amendment guarantees us all the right to speak freely about our beliefs — or lack thereof.”

Fouts previously ordered the city to battle Marshall’s request to erect a sandwich board “winter solstice” sign bearing an atheistic message in the atrium near where the city annually permits a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. The mayor said the city won that case and said the most-recent settlement adds to the city’s list of victories on several fronts.

“Number one, we now have the permanency of the Nativity scene. That can never be challenged,” Fouts said. “Number two, we have the permanency of the prayer station.”

Fouts again said there would be no “winter solstice” sign at City Hall, and that the “reason station” would not be placed near the “prayer station,” despite a previous request to do so.

He previously said that the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s position “didn’t qualify as a religion,” and thus didn’t fall under his pledge to honor requests from all religions seeking equal space at City Hall.

Fouts said he denied Marshall’s requests because he was concerned it would result in a contentious atmosphere.

“He (Marshall) cannot be disruptive. He cannot be aggressive. He will just sit there and wait,” Fouts said. “It (the prayer station) is passive. It’s non-denominational. That’s what it will continue to be. He’ll be expected to operate by the same rules.”

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