The Reason Station

by Rachel Sharma

In the city of Warren, Michigan, the city hall atrium played host to different booths that “may be reserved for most types of functions or activities”.[1] One of these activities is known as the “Prayer Station”, set up by the Tabernacle Pentecostal ministry.[2] This booth has been in affect from 2009 to the present. Volunteers who run the booth offer to pray with passersby, distribute religious pamphlets, and discuss their religious beliefs with those who approach. Douglas Marshall, a citizen of Warren, wanted to set up, what he called, a “reason station” to educate the people of his town about atheism because he did not agree with the views of the Tabernacle ministry.[3] He also feels that his beliefs in atheism hold the same place in his life that a belief in God would traditionally hold. Marshall’s “reason station” would be similar to the prayer station with only a difference of material separating them: Marshall’s booth would discuss philosophical arguments about atheism instead of religion.

Marshall had to go through an application process to set up a booth in the atrium. After sending in his application, Marshall received a letter from Mayor James Fouts stating that “All of these events [Prayer Station] are allowed because of the right to freedom of religion constitutional amendment. We cannot and will not restrict this right for any religion to use the atrium, as long as the activity is open to all religions. Freedom from Religion is not a religion… 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”.[4] Douglas Marshall then filed suit in response to this denial by the Mayor and the city of Warren. In the case of Marshall v. City of Warren, the Federal courts decided correctly in holding with Marshall because the First Amendment protects speech, even speech that is in the minority of a community.

Marshall’s suit involved three counts of content and viewpoint-based restriction in violation of the First Amendment. The first is specifically about the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”.[5] This prohibits government abridgement of speech and expression. The act of not allowing Marshall’s booth access to the platform of the city hall atrium discriminated on the basis of content. This, in turn, limited the speech based on its content, which was a violation of the Free Speech Clause. The second deals with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.[6] This clause states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.[7] Under the First amendment, the United States government cannot advocate for one religion over another and cannot have a state-sponsored religion. By not allowing the reason station, the government prioritized religion over non-religion, “favoring religious belief over disbelief”.[8] In doing so, the government establishes that it has a religion at all, when a neutral position to religion is outlined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The third count also centered around the Establishment Clause, but in a different way than the one before. The government must have qualified the speech of the Tabernacle ministry as private speech in a public forum. If the court failed to do so, and classifies this speech as governmental, then it violated the Establishment Clause because “its purpose if primarily religious and its principal or primary effect advances and endorses religion”.[9]

This case went to Federal Court and ruled in favor of Marshall and his “reason station”. The court ruled in Marshall’s favor because the city of Warren violated the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the First amendment, and practiced viewpoint-based discrimination. This argument won, and correctly so, because while his reason station directly opposed the viewpoint of the prayer station, it is still a viewpoint that can be voiced in a public area, under the rights guaranteed by the First amendment. Marshall’s prayer station speaks directly to the idea of content neutrality. This legal principle, developed by Justice Scalia, stipulates that the government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint or content.[10] For example, the government cannot allow a law that explicitly states that religion and national origin are not to be discriminated against. While these kinds of discrimination are not good for society, this law leaves out discrimination based on sexuality, gender, sex, race, and many other factors. As a result, this law picks and chooses what can and cannot be discriminated against, it is not content neutral. The government must not allow discrimination of any kind, no matter the category it is against. In Marshall’s case, his local government attempted to discriminate based on the content and viewpoint of his booth in the atrium, which is atheism. Since the government cannot operate in such a capacity, this was ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

I believe that the Federal Court ruled justly in the case. First, had they sided with the city of Warren and Mayor Fouts, cities, states, and the federal government could control what religious viewpoints were voiced in public, and which were not. On a larger scale, these entities could control what viewpoints about any other topic were voiced in public. This would completely destroy the integrity and the purpose of the First amendment. The First amendment protects everyone by allowing them to speak what they wish, with a few exceptions. This allows Americans to oppose the government and any other group they may disagree with and without this protection, America could not be what it is today. This case threatened to destroy that right. Thankfully, the Federal Courts sided with Marshall, and the rights of all Americans.


[1] Complaint of Petitioner Marshall v. City of Warren, Dist. Ct. MI (2014).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. I § 1

[6] Complaint of Petitioner Marshall v. City of Warren, Dist. Ct. MI (2014).

[7] U.S. Const. amend. I § 1

[8] Complaint of Petitioner Marshall v. City of Warren, Dist. Ct. MI (2014).

[9] Id.

[10] R.A.V. v. St. Paul 505 U.S. 377 (1992).