'Atheism is not a religion' says US mayor after city fined $100k for barring atheist exhibition

The group Freedom from Religion should be allowed to erect an atheist stand in Warren city hall, like this prayer station.Screenshot/WJBK-TV

A US city and its mayor have been fined $100,000 for refusing to allow an atheist "reason station" to be erected next to a Christian "prayer station" in its city hall.

The action against Warren, the largest city in Macomb County in the state of Michigan, and its mayor, James R Fouts, was brought after a resident Douglas Marshall sought permission to erect the reason station to reflect his own belief in reason and free thought "as an alternative" to God".

Fouts personally turned down his request, arguing that the annual Nativity scene, the prayer station in the atrium and the annual day of prayer in front of city hall were allowed because of the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

He said the atrium was open to all religions but Marshall's group, Freedom from Religion, which had objected to all the religious events at city hall, was not a religion. "It has no tenets, no place of worship and no congregation."

The mayor wrote: "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. The City of Warren cannot allow this."

The prayer station is run by the Pentecostal Tabernacle Church of Warren. Those manning it hand out pamphlets and offer to pray and debate with people.

Marshall wanted the opportunity likewise to hand out literature about atheism and have philosophical debates with passers-by.

The suit was brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Judge Michael Hluchaniuk, the federal magistrate for the area's district court, ruled that the reason station "be allowed to operate on terms not less favorable than the terms granted to the 'Prayer Station' currently allowed in the atrium space" and fined the city $100,000 for costs, damages and attorney fees.

Fouts told the Detroit Free Press he refused permission for the reason station because he believed it would lead to conflict.