During the holiday season the City of Warren allows the Rotary Club to display its nativity scene in the public atrium of city hall. When an atheist group wrote to the city asking them to remove the display, the city’s mayor refused to do so but wrote in a letter that “all religions are welcome to celebrate their religious seasons with a display in city hall.” The atheist group then asked to place its own display in the same area, but their request was denied.
In rejecting the display, the mayor told the atheists that they were not a “recognized religion” and their display’s statement of atheism was “highly offensive.” The atheist group sued the city, seeking the same access given to the Rotary Club. The ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit supporting the atheists’ First Amendment rights.
Unfortunately, in February 2013 the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the city. Without mentioning the fact that the mayor had invited all religions to place a display in city hall, the appeals court held that the nativity scene represented “government speech” and the city was not required to accommodate the private speech of the atheist group.
The court further held that because the nativity scene was accompanied by secular symbols such as reindeer and snowmen, it did not amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
(Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Warren; ACLU Attorney Dan Korobkin; Cooperating Attorney Christopher Lund.)