Atheists win o.k. to set up 'reason station' in city hall

by Will Hall, |
Volunteers from The Tabernacle Church in Warren, Michigan, provide a place in the city's civic center, which also houses the municipal government, where visitors can ask for prayer. | Excerpted from the complaint filed by plaintiff Douglas Marshall.

WARREN, Mich. (Christian Examiner) – An atheist resident of Warren, Michigan, upset at a prayer station set up in the atrium of the city's civic center has won his battle to set up a competing "reason station" in the facility which also houses the municipal government.

The prayer station has been in place since 2009, with volunteers from The Tabernacle Church offering prayers to anyone who asked between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

In his complaint, Douglas Marshall said he encountered the prayer station—consisting of a 2 foot by 4 foot table with a sign, "Prayer Station"—every time he came to "pay his property taxes and water bill," and pick up and drop off his absentee ballot.

Those infrequent trips since 2009 finally caused him to ask in 2014 for equal space to set up a competing "reason station" from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a move perceived by the mayor as more of an attempt to break the peace than a sincere offer of a service to the citizens of Warren.

In a strongly worded rejection, Mayor Warren Fouts pointed out Marshall's ties to the group Freedom From Religion, which "has objected to the Nativity Scene, the Prayer Station in the atrium and the Annual Day of Prayer in front of city hall."

"I believe it is your group's intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station," he wrote, adding that such activity would "be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment. For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request."

Now, because of a settlement approved by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Hluchaniukm, Marshall has permission to set up "a secular alternative to the 'prayer station'" where he can "offer philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system," according to the American Civil Liberties Union, whose national foundation was one of four largely anti-Christian organizations that represented the plaintiff.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religious Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan also listed their attorneys in the complaint.

Bishop C.J. Andre, lead pastor with his wife at The Tabernacle Church, which was not part of Marshall's lawsuit but whose prayer ministry in the Warren Civic Center was a focus in the complaint, said he was not discouraged by the settlement.

"We're responding as we would to any other opposition," he told Christian Examiner. "And we're not shaken in any way by this."

Citing the promise of hope "for good" found in Romans 8:28, he added that "this situation is one more opportunity for others to see the glory of God in our city--a city pumped for revival."

The lawsuit has not caused "harm to our work," he said, but instead "has brought together more people than we ever thought possible to share the Gospel" with the community.