SCRANTON, Pa (CN) – An atheist organization, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, says in a lawsuit that a Pennsylvania transit system violated its free speech rights by refusing to run a bus advertisement for its website.
The ad at the center of the controversy states, “Atheists. NEPA Freethought Society. NEPAfreethought.org.”
In its lawsuit filed in the Scranton, Pa. Federal Court, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society claims that in February 2012, the Court of Lackawanna Transit System refused to lease advertising space for their message, believing it might “spark public debate and attacked religion.”
The group says the transit system adopted this position despite running “numerous advertisements from religious organizations and other ads that it later deemed to violate its policy.”
The plaintiffs claim the transit system has never turned down an advertisement in the past.
They says that in a letter explaining its decision to turn the ad down, the transit system said, “The existence or non-existence of a supreme deity is a public issue. COLTS believes that your proposed advertisement may offend or alienate a segment of its ridership and thus negatively affect its revenue. … It is COLTS’ goal to provide a safe and welcoming environment on its buses for the public at large. The acceptance of ads that promote debate over public issues such as … the existence of God in a confined space like the inside of a bus detracts from this goal.”
NEPA Freethought Society, an association that states its mission “is to facilitate a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on support and community that upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking,” says the policy that COLTS allegedly always had in place apparently only applied to the society.
According to the lawsuit, the transit system was offended enough to reject the ad altogether “due to content of the proposed advertisements and the viewpoint that COLTS inferred that NEPA Freethought Society had expressed in the ads,” despite allowing ads for four churches, a school board candidate, a beer distributer and an anti-semitic blog ad that “contained links to anti-Semitic websites, holocaust denial websites, and white supremacist websites.”
“Moreover,” the lawsuit states, “for years prior to NEPA Freethought Society’s attempt to advertise, an electric sign on the front of one COLTS bus had displayed the message “God Bless America.” COLTS only stopped displaying the message after NEPA Freethought Society attempted to advertise.”
NEPA Freethought Society says that “all restrictions on advertising and any concerns regarding religious advertisements were ignored until NEPA Freethought Society sought to advertise, and the ad space on COLTS had been historically available to all speakers. Indeed, for at least a decade before January 2012, COLTS had never rejected any advertisement.” (emphasis in the original)
According to the complaint, in response to a media inquiry about the denial of Plaintiff’s ad, COLTS’ solicitor told a reporter that “we will not allow our transit vehicles to become a public forum for the debate and discussion of public issues. … We don’t accept ads promoting any certain religion or religion in general, so we don’t want to accept an ad attacking religion.”
“Another solicitor for COLTS told the local Times-Tribune newspaper that COLTS rejected the ad because statements on the NEPA Freethought Society website led COLTS to believe the ad’s purpose was to promote debate,” the complaint says.
The society says that while COLTS “purports to be objective and consistently applicable, in reality, COLTS has implemented the policy purportedly designed to prevent controversy and “public debate” in a vague, inconsistent, and discretionary manner.”
NEPA Freethought Society seeks injunctive and declaratory relief for alleged violations of its rights under the 1st and 14th Amendment.
It is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and Theresa Loscalzo, Stephen Shapiro and Monica Clarke Platt of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis LLP. Both firms are located in Philadelphia.
Representatives of the defendant transit system were not immediately available for comment.
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