Another dumb politician doesn’t understand the First Amendment

From the Raw Story (where there’s a video I can’t embed), we find another example of an ignorant politician—the mayor of Warren, Michigan—who doesn’t understand that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the one that guarantees freedom of religion) also guarantees freedom from religion. You can’t promote religious belief and at the same time ban unbelief. Sadly, that hasn’t penetrated the skull of Warren’s mayor:

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.

That’s totally bogus; it’s irrelevant with whom Marshall is affiliated. If they can put up pro-religious stuff, they’re obligated to put up nonreligious or antireligious stuff.

“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.”

Curiously, Fouts also rejected the FFRF’s request for an atheist display last year, and that rejection was upheld by the courts. I’m baffled, for that rejection was clearly unconstitutional.

Fout is a deeply ignorant man, as evinced in the story’s last two paragraphs:

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.”

What does that last paragraph even mean?

This fight never ends, does it? Are these people truly ignorant of the Constitution, or willfully ignorant?

h/t: Barry

33 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    This guy needs to look in the mirror. It’s clear the irony that he is actually subverting freedom of speech/conscience/expression is completely lost on him.

    I find when you look into the deeply & fanatically religious, you find that they don’t at all want equality or fairness but a type of religious totalitarianism where those that do not think and behave as they do are punished for it.

  2. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    What they need is a bunch of Pastafarians, Druids, Wiccans and others to patronize the “Prayer Station”.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      If I lived nearby I happily volunteer to “person” a Pastafarian booth. I have a lovely collapsible red silicone colander that should make very fetching headgear. ;-)

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      By “patronising” I take it that you mean to attend the prayer station and indulge in ritual (and religious) cookery, mistletoe-bothering, ley-line dowsing and whatever other practices these religions partake of.
      They are religions. They might not be familiar ones, but they are definitely and absolutely religions. Even Pastafarians (where’s my ordination certificate? … somewhere … I’ll have to dig it out) are absolutely followers of a religion, even if it is designedly a spoof religion.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      I forgot to subscribe.

  3. Secatore
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    “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.

    Evidently the good mayor feels that denigrating religion is an intramural sport; ya gotta belong to one in order to denigrate one.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      That’s kind of what I was thinking. I take it the idiot hasn’t read either the Koran or the Bible.

  4. ladyatheist
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    The government’s freedom of speech? huh?

    In America, anyone can grow up to be president… or mayor. You don’t have to understand the law to obtain a job that requires you to write laws, sign laws, or enforce laws.

    You’d think they would at least receive a little training from the city’s legal team after they get elected. Sheesh

  5. Kevin
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    This guy is terrified that his religious life could end. He really does imagine that if enough people stop believing in Jesus then that means he got it all wrong.

  6. Kevin Alexander
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    ‘Dumb politician’?
    He could be the smartest man around and understand the Constitution better than a Supreme Court Justice but, if he wants to be Mayor of Warren Michigan, he has to act like there’s bricks for brains. It’s called American Democracy.
    Sigh. :(

  7. Sastra
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    “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.

    This is what happens when religion is seen as a matter of social or personal identity and/or an obvious fact … instead of a conclusion and a live controversy.

    Imagine if the State Capitol had put up displays celebrating painting, sculpture, music, and dance — and some group had claimed the right to put up an “art is stupid” display. Or a prominent area was going to contain information honoring Native Americans — and a white supremacy group wanted to add some anti-Native American racist claptrap.

    That is how they see atheism. The existence of God is not open for debate. It’s not like science or politics. It’s like race. It’s something people ARE. Criticize it and you hit people.

    This is why new atheism is necessary. We’re the ones insisting that it’s not only okay to debate the issue in public — we NEED to debate it. To hell with “faith.”

    Individuals can always claim personal privilege if they’re keeping it personal — but this is out in public. Religion-as-an-issue needs to be dragged out into the light of day, analyzed, criticized, mocked, and satirized like any other claim of fact, standing or falling on its truth merits and not the pious sentiment of its smiling and dogmatic adherents.

    Otherwise, this sort of thing is going to happen over and over — fueled not just by the aggression of the conservatives, but by the passive aggression of the accomodationists. It wouldn’t matter how positive, how uplifting, how interesting the atheist display is: they will always complain because it tries to make faith seem like a bad thing when enlightened people embrace all of its expressions.

  8. johnpieret
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Fouts explained that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was not protected under the First Amendment’s Establishment clause because atheism was not a religion.

    The interesting thing is that the ruling that upheld (for reasons too complex to explain here) the previous rejection of FFRF’s previous request for a display also said this:

    It may be true that the Mayor misapprehended the Religion Clauses when he implied that atheists receive no protection from them by saying that the Foundation’s
    “non-religion” was “not a recognized religion.” In this respect, the Mayor, apparently untrained as a lawyer, may not have missed his calling. The Religion Clauses, it turns out, do protect the religious and nonreligious.

    http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0049p-06.pdf

    • John Harshman
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      If I were you, I’d take “for reasons too complex to explain here” as a challenge. Please make an attempt. I’m curious, and I’m sure others are too.

      • johnpieret
        Posted April 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        I’ll try.

        There are two types of situations where these cases arise: 1) where the government itself puts up some sort of display and 2) where the government allows individuals or non-government entities to put up displays on government property. Somewhat different rules apply to each situation.

        When the government puts up a holiday display any endorsement of a particular religion or religion in general must be “indirect, remote, and incidental.” Essentially, what this means is that the government has to make it clear that, overall, it is not endorsing a particular religion (that’s why menorahs are popular in government displays) or religion in general (by including “secular” holiday elements). In the prior case, the government erected display included a lighted tree, ribbons, ornaments, reindeer, wreaths, snowmen, a mailbox for Santa, elves, wrapped gift boxes, nutcrackers, poinsettias, candy canes, and a “Winter Welcome” sign in addition to the nativity scene. The court held, based on precedent, that governments can acknowledge religious holidays and that, given all the secular holiday symbols, including a creche simply “depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday.” I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation of the Establishment Clause but a robust line of Supreme Court decisions means we’re stuck with it.

        Since the display was put up solely by the government, it did not create a “public forum” and, therefore the government didn’t have to let FFRF put up its sign.

        Governments have much less room to maneuver when they let outside groups put up displays or, in the present instance, set up “Prayer Stations.” If they do that, then it has to allow everyone equal access to the public forum without content discrimination.

  9. Linda Stahl
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I may not agree with him, but the Mayor’s stance here is consistent with what the Sixth Circuit ruled previously. That is, so long as a message contains both secular and religious symbols sufficient to pass muster under the Establishment Clause, no individual or group can compel the government to post contrary messages or symbols. The state has a right to its point of view, just as private citizens do. This essentially confines the Rationals to leafletting and conversation — they don’t get to install their booth in City Hall.

    We can talk forever about how endorsement of prayer or a nativity favors one religion over another (which it clearly does), but the weight of legal precedent allows this conduct by government officials. The only recourse is to vote the man out.

    See the full opinion at: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0049p-06.pdf

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Just how does a “Prayer Station” “contain both secular and religious symbols sufficient to pass muster under the Establishment Clause”?

      • eric
        Posted April 18, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        If I understand John Pieret correctly in @8 above, the problem here is that FFRF requested that they be allowed to put up their own display, rather than suing to have the government one taken down. Because the government never created an open forum, FFRF lost on the grounds that the government did not have to let any private group put up a display. Had FFRF sued on the grounds that the government display was an establishment violation and needed to go, maybe things would have turned out differently.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps.

      But a continued problem is that the mayor says

      “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,…I believe it is group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station which would also be a violation…”

      These statements by the mayor are not evidenced.

      As for his final claim that the group wants to “denigrate” religion, well yes the FFRF sometimes does that but more in individual statements rather than displays and some atheist billboards have done that too. But lots of atheist displays simply celebrate reason and proclaim “good without god”. No direct denigration of religion, but instead a declaration of its non-necessity.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Furthermore, a second party’s suspicion of another’s intent is not sufficient cause to take action against that person or group. No intent to disrupt can be proved unless it has been stated in advance or it actually occurs. That’s like saying you can arrest any man in a trench coat because he might be a flasher.

    • johnpieret
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Linda:

      The state has a right to its point of view, just as private citizens do.

      You have misinterpreted what the Sixth Circuit was saying in its decision. Government speech is much more restricted than the speech of individuals. Individuals (persons, churches, etc.) can hang a sign on their property saying “Jesus is the Lord our God” and the government can’t stop them (with some caveats as to zoning restrictions). But if a city did that on city property, it would be struck down in an instant.

      The reference to “government speech” in the decision was about a much narrower issue: if a government engages in otherwise permissible speech, it has not created a “public forum” that requires it to allow others to exercise their opposing views on the same government property or forum. Such opposing views can be expressed elsewhere, including government property traditionally viewed as public forums, such as sidewalks outside government offices; just not in the exact same place or medium as the permissible government speech.

  10. moarscienceplz
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I love the way the Constitution-lovin’ Faux News viewers think that “fredom of religion” is an actual phrase from the Constitution and thus “freedom from religion” is not Constitutionally protected.
    I also find it amusing but also appalling that this sooper-genius mayor is a former civics teacher. The one good thing in this whole issue is that this blockhead is no longer teaching Republican-flavored civics to any more kids.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      What is telling is these religious people look for any detail that would show that “ha ha you aren’t protected” instead of thinking about fairness.

  11. Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Q. “Are these people truly ignorant of the Constitution, or willfully ignorant?

    A. Yes and yes.

  12. tim
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    When it suits the argument of religionists, atheism is just another religion like any other. When it doesn’t suit their arguments, atheism is not a religion. Make up your minds!

  13. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Actually, it can be argued that the First Amendment does not in fact secure freedom from religion. Before anybody attacks, the reasoning for this is that the original articles had already established freedom FROM religion. The First Amendment simply redressed the omission of freedom OF religion.

    Two relevant sections are presented below:

    The first is the Oath of Office for the President. (note no reference to Bibles or so help me gods)

    Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight:

    Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

    Article VI

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

    Seems pretty clear exactly what the founders intended. Perhaps some tea party goers could bother to study the actual test.

    • Pliny the in Between
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, text.

    • eric
      Posted April 18, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      I am not sure how you read an overall freedom from religion in the ‘no religious test’ clause and oaths of office. The clause, for example, would not prevent the levying of a general tax to support a religious sect. It would also not prevent a senator or public official from using the power of their office to evangelize the public once in office. It only says that the sitting government must allow people of different faiths (or none) to be elected, it doesn’t put any limit on how they can use their power once in office. We need the first admendment to give us freedom FROM religion just as much as freedom of religion.

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted April 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        The lack of checks on power (particularly the executive) you describe aren’t limited to religion and are considered by some to be a flaw in our system. But, I am referencing insights we can gather from the structure of the original text. Nothing prevents some lawmaker from doing what you suggest but the articles would likely point to it being unconstitutional. Had the founders intended religion to be a factor in government they would not have included such language as I describe.

        The original articles are clear that rights not defined by the articles are not explicitly limited unless mentioned but actions of government are limited to those defined.

        Nothing in the First Amendment language specifically defines freedom from religion. It has been interpreted as such but I still maintain that the original articles do more to establish separation and overall freedom of conscience.

  14. Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Since when does “may I also say something” equal “depriv[ing] all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms”?

    That is just incredibly obtuse.

  15. Aelfric
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Attorney here, with a bit of First Amendment experience. That being said, what follows is basically pure speculation. I think the crucial bit of information here is that the suit was last year, and based on a previous version of the holiday display. Nowhere does the Sixth Circuit mention a “Prayer Station” in its opinion. I think the Sixth Circuit is correct so far as its opinion goes–but I believe even the conservative (though respected) Judge Sutton would have changed his mind if a “Prayer Station” were included, as that would clearly tip the scale towards an endorsement of religion (at least as against non-religion). I get the feeling that the Mayor and/or city council were emboldened by their victory against the Freedom From Religion Foundation and decided to push the envelope this year.

  16. Filippo
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    sub

  17. Posted April 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    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

    Well, I assume he is right about the part after the “at least” at least. Yes, an outspoken non-religious group can be assumed to want to discourage the practice of religion.

    But so what? If that is grounds for exclusion, the same would have to apply to all religions.

    Because Christians intend to discourage the practice of Islam, Muslims intend to discourage the practice of Hinduism, Hindus intend to discourage the practice of Mormonism, and so on…

    The very act of believing in one religion is an open statement that all others are false. Even the most fuzzy minded, eucumenical person saying “all religions are ultimately the same spiritual yearning” thereby rejects the beliefs of the people who say, no, mine alone is correct, and “intends to discourage” their practice.

  18. The Rose
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    “Is it that you can’t learn or you won’t learn?” —Martin Crane

    “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” —Thomas Jefferson


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