WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — An atheist group has sued a transit system in Pennsylvania for refusing to run a bus ad that expressly sought to connect with other atheists.
The Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society filed the lawsuit on Tuesday against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) after it declined to place an ad citing atheism on the sides of its buses.
The advertisement, which the Society sought to place in 2012, simply read “atheists” and featured the website of the group. According to the federal complaint, the transit system declined the ad because it could cause arguments among riders.
At the time, the transit system’s policy prohibited advertisements deemed “derogatory to any . . . religion,” or “that [are] objectionable, controversial or would generally be offensive to COLTS’ ridership.” It also stated that buses were not meant to be a public forum “for dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues.” Political campaigns and advertisements surrounding drugs and alcohol were also prohibited.
Therefore, only commercial advertisements were permitted, the transit system stated.
“We will not allow our transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the debate and discussion of public issues, and since passing this policy in June, we have been very consistent in not allowing any ads that violate the policy,” Solicitor Tim Hinton stated following the refusal, according to the Christian Post.
But the society asserted in its lawsuit on Tuesday that the transit system had run advertisements in the past for churches and a beer distributor, and that the atheist ad should not have been therefore been rejected.
The organization then again sought to place its advertisement in 2013, but was again denied.
“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,” a rejection letter from the transit system read.
Days afterward, COLTS further adjusted its policy to state that it does not accept advertisements “[t]hat promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs of lack of religious beliefs; or are otherwise religious in nature.”
It reiterated that its buses were considered a nonpublic forum that vehicles were not to be used “for the dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues or issues that are political or religious in nature.”
The atheist society tried a third time to submit an advertisement in 2014, this time removing the word “atheist” and using only “NEPA Freethought Society” along with the organization’s website. It was then accepted and the ads were run last fall.
As a result, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society decided to sue the transit system, asserting that its policy will “hinder [the group] from achieving its goals” as removing the word “atheist” from its advertisement renders “the meaning of the advertisement and focus of the group unclear, thus interfering with the organization’s efforts to reach its intended audience.”
It asserts a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
“[T]here is simply no justification for banning all references to religion,” ACLU attorney Monica Clarke Platt told reporters. “Religion is such an important issue, and speech related to religion is exactly the kind the First Amendment is designed to protect.”
COLTS is not yet commenting on the matter.