City of Warren Wins In Court Against The Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Warren-Decision-ROHEach year after Thanksgiving, the City of Warren, Michigan has erected a holiday display, The display includes a lighted tree, ribbons, ornaments, reindeer, wreaths, snowmen, a mailbox for Santa, elves, wrapped gift boxes, nutcrackers, poinsettias, candy canes, a “Winter Welcome” sign and a nativity scene.

In 2010, the group “Freedom from Religion Foundation” sent a letter to the city demanding the city remove the nativity scene.

The city refused.

The request was repeated and the refusal from the city was repeated.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation then sent a letter to the city asking it to place a “sandwich style sign” with the follow upon it:

At this season of
may reason prevail.
There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
No heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world,
Religion is but
Myth and superstition
That hardens hearts
And enslaves minds.
Placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation
On Behalf of its State Members
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Warren Mayor James Fouts then sent a letter back to the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

I have received a letter (December 9, 2011) from Mr. Douglas J. Marshall, a member of your organization, for permission to display a sign in the City Hall atrium near the Nativity Scene.

I have reviewed the proposed 2-sided “sandwich board” sign. The language on the proposed sign is clearly anti-religion and meant to counter the religious tone of the Nativity Scene, which could lead to confrontations and a disruption of city hall.

This proposed sign is antagonistic toward all religions and would serve no purpose during this holiday season except to provoke controversy and hostility among visitors and employees at city hall.

Your phrase that “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds,” is highly offensive and is not a provable statement. Likewise, your statement that there are “no gods” and “no angels” is also not provable.

If you requested permission to put up a sandwich board saying that there is no Santa Claus, you would be met with the same response. Santa Claus lives in the minds and hearts of many millions of children. The belief of God and religion lives in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people and is as much a part of the fabric of America, as the belief in democracy and freedom.

Indeed, our country was founded upon basic religious beliefs. The President takes the oath of office on the Holy Bible. The U.S. Congress has a house chapl[a]in. Both major political party leaders invoke God in their speeches and pronouncements. Our coins have “In God We Trust.” We have a whole host of other religious traditions in government situations at all levels.

Everyone has a right to believe or not believe in a particular belief system, but no organization has the right to disparage the beliefs of many Warren and U.S. citizens because of their beliefs.

Thus, I cannot and will not sanction the desecration of religion in the Warren City Hall atrium.

As I would not allow displays disparaging any one religion, so I will not allow anyone or any organization to attack religion in general. Your proposed sign cannot be excused as a freedom of religion statement because, to my way of thinking, this right does not mean the right to attack religion or any religion with mean-spirited signs. The proposed sign would only result in more signs and chaos.

When I allowed a display in city hall celebrating Ramadan, the Moslem holy season, I received many calls objecting but I would never have allowed a sign next to the Ramadan display mocking or ridiculing the Moslem religion.

In my opinion, Freedom of Religion does not mean “Freedom Against or From Religion.” And Freedom of Speech is not the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Indeed, there are common sense restraints on all constitutional rights.

Your non-religion is not a recognized religion. Please don’t hide behind the cloak of non-religion as an excuse to abuse other recognized religions. You can’t make a negative into a positive.

Clearly, your proposed display in effect would create considerable ill will among many people of all recognized faiths.

During this holiday season, why don’t we try to accomplish the old adage of “Good will toward all”?

(emphasis in original)

Fouts is wrong on a couple of minor points, but he is right over all. For example, people do have the right to disparage beliefs of others. That is part of free speech. The government cannot advance or disparage the beliefs of a group, but private citizens and groups can. In addition, the Supreme Court has recognized no belief in religion as a belief.

However as we said, Fouts gets the general message right. The City’s display contained recognized symbols of the season – not just a religious symbol of the nativity.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued and lost in a lower court. They appealed that ruling. On Monday, February 25, 2013, a three judge panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 3 – 0 decision upholding the City of Warren’s display as it is now constituted.

Justice Sutton writes in the opinion:

Any other approach would overhaul customary assumptions about the government’s authority to state a viewpoint. If strict neutrality were the order of the day when the government speaks for itself, as opposed to regulating the speech of others, the United States Postal Service would need to add all kinds of stamps, religious and nonreligious alike, to its December collection. Veterans’ Day would lead to Pacifism Day, the Fourth of July to Non-Patriots Day, and so on. Beyond ways to commemorate this or that important event, the government would face even greater problems in promoting its own policies. Could it urge people to “Register and Vote,” “Win the War,” “Buy U.S. Bonds” or “Spay or Neuter Your Pets” without incurring an obligation to sponsor opposing messages? Doubtful. Bredesen, 441 F.3d at 379. “Simply because the government opens its mouth to speak does not give every outside individual or group a First Amendment right to play ventriloquist.” Downs v. L.A. Unified Sch. Dist., 228 F.3d 1003, 1013 (9th Cir. 2000).

(At this point in the opinion we thought “ACK!” until we read the next paragraph.)

None of this, we hasten to add, gives cities and towns a blank check. None of this frees them from the obligation to comply with the Establishment Clause or other constitutional guarantees. That is why Warren in the aftermath of Allegheny County could not have put up a holiday display that contained only a nativity scene. And none of this frees them from the push and pull of the political process—above all from accountability for their speech through the democratic process.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-President of Freedom From Religion Foundation says her group will seek to have the case heard in front of the entire 6th District Court of Appeals while Mayor Fouts says he is happy with the ruling.

As well he should be.

3 Responses to “City of Warren Wins In Court Against The Freedom From Religion Foundation.”

  1. Ryan Walters says:

    It seems, we are often too ready to engage in conflict over this issue. I would agree with Mr. Fouts in his assertion to express “Good will towards men (as well as women)” during that season. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could respect each other within the spiritual/non-spiritual context? Wouldn’t it be great if simple disagreement wasn’t constantly mistaken for persecution?

    At some point, people start to disengage from this contentious situation out of self-preservation and sheer exhaustion.

    And during that season, it always occurred to me that, the individuals offend by the greeting “Merry Christmas” were just as intolerant and ridiculous as the individuals offend by the greeting “Happy Holidays”.

    Additionally, some people have “Holiday Trees,” while some have “Christmas Trees.”
    This begs the question: Will it ever be easy to conflate and express personal preference in a public setting?

    • AAfterwit says:

      Ryan Walters,

      Thanks for the comment. Good to see you still around here.

      I think part of the conflict has come about when companies are telling employees that saying “Merry Christmas” is wrong. Or that a public servant saying “Merry Christmas” while on the job somehow violates the establishment clause. There was a push and now others are pushing back.

      I agree with you there is an intolerance in being offended, but I also think there is an intolerance of ideas. For example, I know you are an atheist (you have said so in the past) so I am going to try to be considerate when addressing you because you are not going to celebrate Christmas in the same religious style that I would. I would take a millisecond of time to try to be polite and think “you don’t celebrate ‘Christmas,’ so ‘Happy Holidays’ is more of an appropriate wish for you.” At the same time, I would hope you would reciprocate and realize that as a religious person, “Merry Christmas” would be more appropriate of a wish for me.

      On a side note, I agree with Mayor Fouts that the actual sign the Freedom from Religion Foundation proposed was divisive and antagonistic. If you don’t want to have a religious connotation in your message, that is fine, but don’t denigrate the message of others. Not then. Not there.

      I get what you are saying and it does seem strange that during a time of year when we all try to preach “peace on earth,” we punch people in stores over a doll and get offended by a positive desire for someone.

      A. Afterwit.

  2. Ryan Walters says:

    Agreed, but with regard to society, in a broader sense, I would have no clue as to the religious preferences of strangers I greet during that season. Now, I am fully aware of your preferences, and respect them as such (for, as you stated, we are aware of one another’s belief, or lack their of). So it stands to reason, that the semantics of the messages are negating the intents behind them. Truly a sad commentary, for I bare no ill-will toward any individual as a result of their belief or lack of belief.

    Again, I would proffer the confusion many have between, disagreement and persecution as a root cause. People have stopped talking to each other, in favor of rhetoric, hyperbole and most of all, hate.