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Michigan Mayor Permits ‘Prayer Stations’ At City Hall, Bans Atheists, Violates Constitution

church-state-street-signs

The Mayor of Warren, Michigan has apparently forgotten about something called the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

A Michigan mayor who says that he believes in freedom of religion has refused to allow atheists to set up a so-called “Reason Station” inside City Hall, saying it could upset Christians visiting the nearby “Prayer Station.”

According to the Detroit Free Press, Warren resident Douglas Marshall proposed the “Reason Station” to promote separation of church and state, and to tell people about using free thought, reason and logic.

But Warren Mayor Jim Fouts rejected the display for a period of one year because of Marshall’s affiliation with a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In a letter to Marshall, Fouts explained that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was not protected under the First Amendment’s Establishment clause because atheism was not a religion.

“To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion,” Fouts wrote. “The City of Warren cannot allow this.”

“Also, I believe it is group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment,” he added. “For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request.”

There are so many Constitutional issues implicated by this story that it could serve as a Law School or Bar Exam hypothetical.

First of all, there’s the rather obvious problem of a governmental body endorsing religious faith of any kind by allowing the establishment of so-called “Prayer Stations” on public property. Courts at all levels continue to struggle with these issues on a regular basis, of course, and it isn’t always easy to say exactly where the line is, but there are a handful of general principles that apply in all these situations. Governmental bodies, for example, are generally forbidden from officially endorsing a specific religious faith, whether that endorsement comes in the form of statements made or actions taken by agents of the government or by giving permission to outside groups to proselytize in favor of those beliefs on government property. The city of Warren likely believes that it is getting around this restriction by granting access to a any religious group to set up a “prayer station” at City Hall, but there is plenty of case law which clearly establishes that ecumenicism does not provide protection against a claim that the government entity has violated  Establishment Clause. The very act of endorsing religion, even if one is endorsing all religions, is often enough to be a violation.

The second issue, of course, is the clearly started decision by the Mayor to deny the Freedom From Religion Foundation equal access to the public space where these “prayer stations” are allowed to exist. This is an issue that is seemingly litigated every year in connection with Christmas displays. Generally, courts have ruled that governments cannot establish displays are are exclusively religious, meaning that a Nativity display by itself would not be acceptable, but a nativity display with a Christmas tree might be. Courts have also often required that if governments allow outside groups to utilize public spaces for such holiday displays they must give equal access to other faiths and points of view, including obviously satirical things such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Under these rules, the decision by the Mayor to deny access to the FFRF would clearly seem to be impermissible. If you’re going to give access to one point of view on religion, then you must give access to  all points of view, otherwise you’re violating both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Third, even if the Mayor’s decision to exclude the FFRF were not considered a violation of the religion clause of the First Amendment, it most assuredly would be a violation of the Freedom of Speech clause. While the Supreme Court has given governments, especially on the local level, the authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of speech, it has required that those restrictions must be, above all else, content neutral. For example, a city could adopt an ordinance restricting sound trucks from broadcasting on public streets during certain hours but it could not adopt an ordinance that banned sound trucks broadcasting particular points of view. In this case, Mayor Fouts has explicitly stated that he is banning FFRF from public grounds because of the content of their speech. That is quite obviously an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech.

In other words, no matter how you look at it, what Mayor Fouts is doing here is clearly unconstitutional. Based on what he is saying in public though, I doubt he even realizes what the Constitution says:

WJBK reported that the city of Warren has approved the “Prayer Station,” a Ramadan Display, a Nativity scene and a Day of Prayer — but nothing for atheists.

“I will continue to support all groups regardless of race or religion, but I will not support a group that denigrates those groups,” Fouts told the station.

“I emphasize one thing,” he added. “The government cannot restrict an individual’s freedom of speech, but an individual cannot restrict the government’s freedom of speech.”

Can anyone even explain what this last part means? Even if one could articulate such a thing as “the government’s freedom of speech,” it’s impossible for me to understand how the FFRF would be restricting it if it were allowed to set up it’s “Reason Station” in the same general area as the “Prayer Stations.” Someone needs to send Mayor Fouts to a remedial Civics class, because he clearly failed it the first time around.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John425 says:

    Is Atheism a religion? One could argue is a “hate” group.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 67

  2. Ben says:

    “I emphasize one thing,” he added. “The government cannot restrict an individual’s freedom of speech, but an individual cannot restrict the government’s freedom of speech.”

    Reading that quote only made me think of one proper response, which I am stealing from a movie:

    What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 36 Thumb down 0

  3. Rick Almeida says:

    @John425:

    One could argue that you’re a “toad”, but that doesn’t make the argument valid or correct.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 2

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    @John425:

    One could argue is a “hate” group.

    Perhaps one could, but you clearly didn’t.

    Saying “one can argue” without presenting, you know, the actual argument is intellectually lazy.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 40 Thumb down 0

  5. Matt Bernius says:

    “I will continue to support all groups regardless of race or religion, but I will not support a group that denigrates those groups,” Fouts told the station.

    The problem with this line of thought is that it ignores the fact, that if we take a literal reading of most of the religions in question, they all “denigrate” each other in claiming that theirs is the “only truly correct way.”

    How is a Christian believing, for example, that the Jews and Muslims (not to mention the Atheists) all have it wrong any different from an Atheist believing that the Christians, Jews and Muslims all have it wrong?

    This is one of those example of clear bias against Atheists. And really shoddy logic on the part of the person of faith.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 31 Thumb down 0

  6. anjin-san says:

    Saying “one can argue” without presenting, you know, the actual argument is intellectually lazy.

    It’s also SOP on Fox News.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  7. Tillman says:

    @Ben: The delivery is perfect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. mantis says:

    @John425:

    One could argue is a “hate” group.

    And one would be very stupid for doing so.

    And by the way, atheism is not a group. It’s a lack of theism.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 0

  9. Mayor Fourts (R) knows exactly what he’s doing. The costs of litigating this won’t cost him a dime, but standing up against atheists will win him votes with Christianist voters even when he inevitably loses. So it’s a win-win for him.

    For all their talk about ending government waste, Republicans love wasting millions on completely symbolic displays of their identity.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 0

  10. Tillman says:

    I walked into this headline, metaphorically, wondering what the hell a prayer station is.

    Now I know, and I’m not impressed. Nor can I imagine what the atheist/reason station analogue would do. I can only conjecture it would embarrass atheists the same way this prayer station embarrasses me. Did you guys watch the video at the link? It literally looks like Lucy’s booth from Peanuts, and it probably adds the same value to the community.

    Oh, and Doug’s right on everything. No quibbles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  11. Tillman says:

    And not to go all High and Mighty on the prayer station, but it’s very un-Christian.

    “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
    Matthew 6:5-6

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 0

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @John425: A lot of people could say the same thing about Christianity…..

    Hypatia of Alexandria, for one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  13. C. Clavin says:

    @John425:
    Simply because I do not believe in an infinitely old, infinitely powerful, totally omniscient being for which there is absolutely no tangible evidence…does not mean you should insult me….that is highly un-christian of you. What a surprise….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  14. grumpy realist says:

    Actually, I want to see someone drag a bull into City Hall and do a full-scale sacrifice to Mithras. If we’re going to have prayer, then by gum let’s make sure we have the full-scale ritual, complete with burnt offerings.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Having prayer stations and banning atheists is EXACTLY what Republicans think the 1st is about.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @grumpy realist:
    x 10

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. Ken says:

    @John425: Is Atheism a religion?

    No.

    @John425:One could argue is a “hate” group.

    “One” could also argue that a doorknob is a food product, and it would likely be just as cogent

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  18. Anderson says:

    I wanted to pray inside City Hall, but I couldn’t, because no one had set up a Prayer Station.

    … said no real Christian, ever.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 0

  19. Franklin says:

    @John425:

    One could argue is a “hate” group.

    I hate to pile on, I really do. But that’s not actually a sentence.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Having prayer stations and banning atheists is EXACTLY what Republicans think the 1st is about.

    Apparently they modeled their notion of “freedom of speech” on the Pilgrims’ notion of “freedom of religion”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  21. Tillman says:

    @grumpy realist: I think you mean Indra, lord of rain and thunderstorms. Mithras would take any old animal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. James Pearce says:

    @Tillman:

    I walked into this headline, metaphorically, wondering what the hell a prayer station is.

    A “prayer station” sounds like something from a Philip K Dick novel.

    Also, that Matthew verse always comes to mind when I hear about conspicuous praying. Always. I remember coming upon that passage as a youth and thinking, “This contradicts everything I learned in Sunday school.”

    Thus began a long struggle in which reason eventually won.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  23. @James Pearce:

    A “prayer station” sounds like something from a Philip K Dick novel.

    A prayer station is the perfect hiding place for people who can’t afford a full scale panic room, but don’t want to have to suffer through an emergency in a lowly spaz cabinet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  24. Scott says:

    A “prayer station” sounds like something from a Philip K Dick novel

    I was thinking a pray-o-mat from Zelazny’s Lord of Light.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  25. al-Ameda says:

    @John425:

    Is Atheism a religion? One could argue is a “hate” group.

    Is Tin Foil religious garb? I suppose that one could argue that it’s just tin foil, and not ceremonial garb for prayer stations in Michigan.

    Seriously, to decline to participate in religion is not evidence of hate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  26. Gavrilo says:

    Generally, courts have ruled that governments cannot establish displays are are exclusively religious, meaning that a Nativity display by itself would not be acceptable, but a nativity display with a Christmas tree might be. Courts have also often required that if governments allow outside groups to utilize public spaces for such holiday displays they must give equal access to other faiths and points of view, including obviously satirical things such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Under these rules, the decision by the Mayor to deny access to the FFRF would clearly seem to be impermissible. If you’re going to give access to one point of view on religion, then you must give access to all points of view, otherwise you’re violating both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

    Um. No, not really.

    Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the city didn’t trample on anyone’s free speech rights when it refused to add a sign proposed by Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to its annual holiday display.

    The proposed sign would have read: “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.”

    Fouts called the sign “highly offensive” and “mean-spirited“ and said he wouldn’t stand for it. He told the group in a letter, disclosed in court documents, that he wouldn’t allow any displays to disparage any religion, “so I will not allow anyone or any organization to attack religion in general.”

    Perhaps the mayor knows something about the first amendment that you don’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 11

  27. Tillman says:

    @James Pearce:

    Also, that Matthew verse always comes to mind when I hear about conspicuous praying. Always. I remember coming upon that passage as a youth and thinking, “This contradicts everything I learned in Sunday school.”

    Thus began a long struggle in which reason eventually won.

    That verse always comes to my mind as well. It’s probably my favorite aside from one in Ecclesiastes where I think “ignorance is bliss” comes from.

    But it actually shot me in the other direction. It showed me that most of the people who’d tried to “overchurch” me in my life were mostly dead wrong about what they were saying, and that there was an intelligent faith lurking in there somewhere.

    What we have here, with mayors and city councils defending prayer stations and Nativity scenes against atheist orgs wanting to promote themselves, is a traditional social structure trying to stave off irrelevancy in the worst possible way. Their fight is more to preserve something from someone’s childhood than it is to preserve a religion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  28. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: @Scott: I was thinking Mercerism’s Empathy Boxes.

    So, Philip K. Dick.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. ernieyeball says:

    Closet, Prayer Station, Dial A Prayer in a Phone Booth…What’s the difference???
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElqZms_SUjg

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  30. sam says:

    @Gavrilo:

    Here’s the nut from 6th Circuit’s ruling (Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Warren, 12-1858 (6th Cir. February 25, 2013)):

    The district court rejected these claims, and so do we. The nativity scene, when
    accompanied by this collection of secular and seasonal symbols, does not amount to an establishment of religion or for that matter an impermissible endorsement of it. See Cnty of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 613–21 (1989); Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 683 (1984). Because the display amounts to government speech and because the First Amendment does not prohibit a government from making content or viewpoint distinctions when it comes to its own speech, the City did not violate the Foundation’s free-speech rights by refusing to add the Foundation’s sign.

    You happy with the bolded part, Gavrilo?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  31. Jim R says:

    Why the hell one needs to have “Prayer Stations” (or “Reason Stations,” whatever that consists of) inside a city hall remains to be explained.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  32. Jim R says:

    @Franklin:

    I hate to pile on, I really do. But that’s not actually a sentence.

    But, one could argue that it is.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  33. James Pearce says:

    @Tillman:

    I was thinking Mercerism’s Empathy Boxes.

    That, and the prayer circuits from Maze of Death or even the religious dystopias from Eye in the Sky.

    (Never read any Zelanzy, Scott, not even The Zap Gun, which was written with….Philip K Dick.)

    It showed me that most of the people who’d tried to “overchurch” me in my life were mostly dead wrong about what they were saying, and that there was an intelligent faith lurking in there somewhere.

    Sometimes I wish I had that same revelation. I think I’d be a happier person.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  34. qtip says:

    @Tillman:

    Nor can I imagine what the atheist/reason station analogue would do. I can only conjecture it would embarrass atheists the same way this prayer station embarrasses me.

    I don’t want to speak for the atheists who applied to put this up, but my guess is this is a common strategy to combat government favoritism. If the Christians are allowed to donate books to schoolchildren, the atheists will try to do it to. If the Christians can put bibles in the state-park hotels rooms, then the atheists will try to put their own literature in there too.

    The goal is really to show that the whole thing is stupid and the government should stay out of this altogether.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  35. Franklin says:

    @John425:

    Is Atheism a religion? One could argue is a “hate” group.

    Also, Atheism isn’t even a group.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  36. beth says:

    @qtip: Yeah, it really seems like the atheists are just trying to pick a fight here. If the person manning the booth isn’t a government employee and no public funds are going to maintain it (besides the normal cleaning that would be done in the lobby anyway) why not let them have their booth? They’re not forcing anyone to pray and it would be a nice gesture to just live and let live. Does everything have to be fight?
    Of course if it was me, I’d just send all sorts of sinners with all kinds of depraved sins to shock that old lady at the booth. Hey – they asked for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  37. qtip says:

    @beth:

    I agree there are some likely constitutional violations that are worth a cost/benefit analysis before deciding whether to fight for exactly the reason you describe: they will generate negative publicity even if we are legally right.

    Still, I generally support fighting religious privilege and constitutional violations whenever they appear. I feel pretty strongly that the government should stay neutral on religion and this is a pretty clear case of bias and favoritism.

    Your framing of the issue as “the atheists are just trying to pick a fight” is interesting. When I read the original story, it seemed to me that it was the proselytizing Christians who are the ones picking a fight. The Christians started this. If the atheists try to respond in-kind, then the atheists are the bad actor here, not the Christians and the mayor?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  38. Rafer Janders says:

    including obviously satirical things such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Um, obviously satirical? There’s nothing satirical about my faith. At least we don’t believe a flying fairy made woman out of a man’s rib, and then had a serpent tempt that woman with a piece of fruit. Talk about satire….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  39. Rafer Janders says:

    @beth:

    Yeah, it really seems like the atheists are just trying to pick a fight here.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  40. Tyrell says:

    Atheists already have a place there for a “reason station”: it is called a restroom stall. You can do a lot of thinking, meditating, and reading in there without being disturbed and in privacy. It is also very quiet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  41. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rafer Janders: As one who has had it up to here with the granting of special “rights” to various individuals under cover of “religious freedom”, I want a fight. Seems like one can do just about anything one wants as long as you attach religion to it. It’s like a “Get out of Jail Free” card.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell: Speaking for my self, I use reason every where I go, it is lock stock and barrel part of the atheist life style. Show me a Christian who can say the same and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a Christian at all. As for Prayer Stations, every court room in the country has heard more honest prayers than any church ever did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  43. Tillman says:

    @qtip:

    Your framing of the issue as “the atheists are just trying to pick a fight” is interesting. When I read the original story, it seemed to me that it was the proselytizing Christians who are the ones picking a fight.

    I don’t think they’re proselytizing. That involves actually doing something besides sitting there reading a book until someone comes up and wants to pray. Why they want to pray at city hall, that’s a separate, more disturbing issue. The prayer station is ridiculous, and it shouldn’t be there at all.

    My point was a “reason station” would be similarly ridiculous, and shouldn’t be there. I understand the idea of exposing the absurdity of how the law is handled through action like Douglas Marshall tried to do (the video noted that he often spars with the mayor over religious matters), but there’s got to be something you can do to combat absurdity that doesn’t make you look absurd as well.

    @OzarkHillbilly: You say that, but the law actually regulates animal sacrifice nowadays. You can’t just go out and throttle some pigeons for a fast consult with God anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. Tillman says:

    @Tyrell:

    It is also very quiet.

    You had me right up until this sentence. Everything you said was true right till here.

    Dude, I have been in some public restrooms, and let me tell you, the noises that can be heard there…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  45. Tillman says:

    @Rafer Janders: Where’d you get “flying fairy” from? At least my deity wouldn’t be delicious with some oregano.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  46. qtip says:

    @Tillman:

    I don’t think they’re proselytizing. That involves actually doing something besides sitting there reading a book until someone comes up and wants to pray.

    I suppose technically you are correct, the dictionary definition of “proselytizing” involves an attempt to convert which I would think typically involves something active. So if they sit there without saying a word, maybe they are just advertising/publicizing and not proselytizing. However, if they greet people walking by and attempt to engage them in conversation about jesus, then it would be proselytizing. If someone approaches them and they attempt to tell them the good Word, then it would be proselytizing.

    I think we’re splitting hairs. It seems obvious that the prayer station is an attempt to publicize their religion and give them an opportunity to spread it. Why else would they do it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  47. Tillman says:

    @qtip:

    I think we’re splitting hairs. It seems obvious that the prayer station is an attempt to publicize their religion and give them an opportunity to spread it. Why else would they do it?

    No, you’re right, it’s a kind of “soft” proselytization, but it’s so dumb

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  48. Bernieyeball says:

    @Tyrell: Atheists already have a place there for a “reason station”: it is called a restroom stall.

    Must be why I find these Phoney $10 Bills in toilet stalls all the time.
    http://www.makeitclearnow.org/dollartract.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  49. Bernieyeball says:

    @John425: Is Atheism a religion?

    Not like I ever claimed such a thing. But it does depend on who’s talkin’.

    Stonetools says:
    Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 17:08
    @john personna:
    Apparently Ernieyeball takes comfort from his faith position that ONLY atheists are rational. I suggest we leave him to the comforts of his … Religion, and just move on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  50. skeptic4321 says:

    @John425: Kind of like firefighters hate fires?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  51. skeptic4321 says:

    How about someone just exercie their religious freedom to put up Matt 6 next to the prayer station:

    Matthew 6:5-15

    New International Version (NIV)

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0