An atheist group in Pennsylvania is suing a public transit system for allowing churches to advertise on the sides of its buses, but refusing to allow ads containing the word “atheists,” for fear of alienating passengers.
The Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society filed a federal lawsuit on April 28, reports The Washington Times.
The County of Lackawanna Transit System rejected the ads from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society at least three times, stating it don’t allow its advertising space to be used as public debate forums. The transit system was concerned about hurting revenue and offending riders by using the word “atheists,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claimed a blog linked to anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial and white supremacist websites was allowed to use the transit system’s ad space years before the NEPA Freethought Society attempted to place its first ad.
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued on behalf of the organization and has supported the right to equal free speech.
"The First Amendment means that government officials can't censor speech just because it's unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU Pennsylvania. "Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally."
In response to NEPA Freethought Society's persistence in submitting its ads, the transit agency decided to change its advertising policy in 2013, and impose a ban on all religious advertising promoting the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being, reports Mass Transit magazine.
The suit responded to this decision, stating COLTS had been “motivated by its disagreement with, and distaste for, the viewpoint of one would-be advertiser: NEPA Freethought Society.”
Since the conflict began, the transit system has accepted and run an ad from the NEPA Freethought Society, though the ad only mentions the organization’s name and website, not the word “atheists.”
The group doesn’t think COLTS’ did enough and wants a judge to force the transit system to run its ads containing the word “atheists.”
“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” said the group’s organizer, Justin Vacula, in a statement distributed by ACLU. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”
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