For the past six years, visitors to the city hall of Warren, Mich., have encountered something few municipal buildings have: a large booth marked "Prayer Station."
Staffed four days a week, the prayer booth offers spiritual counseling and religious literature to those visiting the building. City officials justified it by saying that residents of the economically challenged municipality need a pick-me-up.
Not everyone in town thought the Prayer Station was appropriate for city hall. One Warren resident, Douglas Marshall, decided to ask if he could set up a Reason Station. Marshall's booth would be similar in size to the Prayer Station but would offer information about freethought instead of Christianty.
The answer from city officials was a firm no. But that is about to change. As a result of a federal lawsuit, the Detroit suburb will finally get an atheist-oriented display in city hall.
In February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniuk approved a settlement in Marshall v. City of Warren, which paves the way for a Reason Station to appear alongside the Christian Prayer Station. Americans United brought the suit in July alongside the ACLU of Michigan and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) after Warren's mayor, Jim Fouts, rejected Marshall's application to create the display.
Marshall, who identifies as an atheist, told reporters at the time that he simply wanted to provide a secular alternative to the Prayer Station. Members of the Tabernacle Church, a local Pentecostal congregation affiliated with the Church of God, have run the display since 2009; volunteers pass out religious literature and pray with interested passersby.
This seemed like an odd pairing to some in town. Church members would have the right to pass out literature in public areas or go door to door to proselytize, but why must these activities take place inside city hall?
To Marshall, the scheme amounted to an official city endorsement of a particular brand of Christianity - after all, no other religious groups were given such exclusive access to the people who work at and visit city hall. Marshall also believed that church members were recruiting new members for their congregation with the city's help.
But Fouts saw things differently, and he didn't mince words in his response to Marshall's proposal to run a secular station.
"Freedom from Religion is not a religion," Fouts wrote in a letter to Marshall, rejecting the idea. "It has no tenets, no place of...