The American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan and two secular groups are suing the city of Warren and its mayor, Jim Fouts, on behalf of an atheist resident who was forbidden from setting up a "reason station" alongside a long-standing "prayer station" in the City Hall atrium.
While Fouts has permitted a local church group to distribute religious pamphlets and pray with visitors in the atrium since 2009, he rejected a similar proposal by Freedom From Religion member Douglas Marshall to discuss atheism and freethought in April.
Wednesday's lawsuit, filed with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, claims that Fouts violated Marshall's First Amendment rights by endorsing "traditional religious beliefs over atheistic beliefs."
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, states:
Defendants' decision made Mr. Marshall feel unwelcome at the Civic Center, an outsider in the community, a second-class citizen in Warren, and a disfavored member of a religious minority group. Mr. Marshall further objects to his tax payments supporting the operation and maintenance of a facility that Defendants control in a discriminatory manner that advances traditional religious beliefs over atheistic beliefs.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Fouts defended the city's authorization of a "prayer station" as a source of guidance.
"They are just there if someone wishes to seek solace or guidance from them," Fouts told the AP on Wednesday. "The atheist station does not serve that purpose. It will not contribute to community values or helping an individual out."
Comparing atheists to Nazis and white supremacists, Fouts argued that Marshall's "reason station" would be fundamentally antagonistic to prayer.
"The city has certain values that I don't believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Ku Klux Klan station," Fouts added. "I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here."
Marshall is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions mandating the city to permit the "reason station" to operate on the same terms as the "prayer station."
UPDATE: July 25 -- Fouts expanded on his comments in an interview with The Huffington Post Friday, explaining that he felt allowing an atheist station to stand alongside a prayer group would be like permitting a white supremacy booth to operate during a Martin Luther King Day commemoration.
"I do not consider atheists to be Nazis or anything of that nature. I believe they're loyal Americans just like anybody else," Fouts said, but that the "reason station" would "promote conflict, consternation and controversy."
"I believe that City Hall should be open to all ethnic groups and all religious points of view. I am the first mayor to okay and display a Ramadan display," Fouts said. "In addition, I'm the first mayor to celebrate the Martin Luther King birth date."
The mayor continued, saying that the reason station "would end up being a problem, just as if if I were to allow a Nazi group during our MLK celebration, or the White Citizens' Councils. I prefer anyone who comes to our city hall to be a positive element, not a critical element to another group. I know that maybe it's a thin line, but that's been my policy."
"I'm the first mayor to embrace the idea of diversity, in terms of appointments I've made. I'm the first mayor to appoint an African American to be top department head," Fouts said. "My executive assistant is an Arab American ... I've done everything I can to reach out and embrace diversity."
When asked if he had ever reached out to any secular groups, Fouts responded, "We only have one individual that I'm aware of in the city of Warren that's an atheist," referring to Marshall. "No one else has identified themselves. There may be some, but he's the only one."