A federal district court in Michigan has granted summary judgment to the City of Warren in an action involving the display of religious symbols on state grounds brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

Here’s a quick summary.  The City puts up a holiday display in the atrium of the Warren Civic Center each year, and the display includes “Christmas trees, ribbons, ornaments, a ‘Winter Welcome’ sign, a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, a Santa’s mailbox, snowmen, wreaths with lights, bushels of poinsettias, candy canes, wrapped gift boxes, a ‘prayer station,’ and a Nativity Scene.”  There was also a small plaque indicating that the display was “sponsored and provided by the Warren Rotary Club.”

FFRF sent several letters to the City objecting to the inclusion of the Nativity Scene and to its placement, and the mayor of Warren responded disagreeing with the objection and stating that the City did not endorse or favor any religion, and that any religion would be permitted to display “their religious holy seasons in our atrium.” FFRF then sought a permit to display a sandwichboard sign alongside the Nativity Scene containing what were claimed to be “nontheist” statements, including the following: “At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE 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.”  Finding that the sign was anti-religious and disparaging of religious believers, the City did not allow its display.  FFRF sued the City for violations of the Free Speech Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and the Establishment Clause.  The core of the Establishment Clause claim was that the City “approved” the Nativity Scene by displaying it but disapproved the sandwichboard by excluding it from the display.

The Court rejected the claim.  It found that the secular purpose of excluding the sandwichboard was the avoidance of disruption and the potential for confrontation at City Hall.  The sandwichboard was offensive and promoted ill will among members of the City, the Court concluded.  And the primary objective of the display was not religious but secular, consisting of numerous secular symbols and signs.  The inclusion of the Nativity Scene did not transform the overall effect to one of promoting religion.  As for endorsement, the Court noted that the holiday display, including the Nativity Scene, was displayed by a private group, and when the Nativity Scene was looked at within the full context of the display, it did not convey a message of endorsement to a reasonable observer, as it was a comparatively small feature of the display.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Warren, 2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 75464 (E.D. Mich. May 31, 2012).

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