A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that a government agency had every right to reject an atheist advertisement, putting a temporary end to a saga that’s dragged on for more than six years.
In 2012, atheist Justin Vacula and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society attempted to place the following ad on buses in the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS).
If that seems like quite literally the least offensive atheist ad ever, that’s kind of the point. This was a year when a lot of atheist groups were buying bus ads and billboards promoting their views, so Justin went in a different direction by trying to run an ad with the word “atheist,” links to a couple of websites, and pretty much nothing else.
COLTS took the bait by rejecting the ad. They actually called it too “controversial.”
Seriously. Too controversial. The COLTS policy at the time allowed them to reject ads “deemed controversial” or which would otherwise “spark public debate.”
Justin appealed the decision with the help of American Atheists, but the COLTS administrators stood by their claims.
“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. That’s why we didn’t permit Mr. Vacula’s ad promoting atheism,” said COLTS solicitor Tim Hinton.
Debate? Discussion? What exactly are we arguing about when the ad is just one word?
Apparently the mere existence of the word “atheists” was too controversial. (Maybe it’s because it was plural. Too much for some people to handle.)
Was the problem that American Atheists was included on the ad? They were known for being provocative… so Justin submitted a revised ad in 2013, this time without the group’s name. He made a not-at-all controversial ad even less controversial.
Once again, however, he was rejected.
COLTS administrators even voted on a new policy to prevent this “debacle” from ever happening again.
The amended policy, which the COLTS board approved without discussion by a 4-0 vote, clarifies and lays out in more detail the types of advertising the agency will not accept, including ads that promote the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being or deity or other religious beliefs.
“It’s our aim to be completely neutral on religious issues,” solicitor Timothy Hinton said.
He said the revised policy had been in the works “for quite some time” and was not prompted by the NEPA Freethought Society’s latest attempt to advertise on COLTS buses.
Sure it wasn’t…
Still, that new policy hardly made things better. It might be okay and legal to avoid all ads debating God’s existence… but this ad wasn’t doing that. You could argue this was about as religiously neutral as you could get.
The weirdest thing about this whole story, in my opinion, is that Justin tried submitting yet another version of this ad. This time, he removed the word “Atheists” but kept “NEPA Freethought Society” and the group’s URL.
Believe it or not, COLTS said that one was okay.
That’s… really confusing. How could it be that the word “Atheists” was too controversial, but “Freethought” was okay? Maybe they just didn’t know what the word meant… but that would be evidence that COLTS was just discriminating against atheists.
Maybe everyone was making too big a deal about this. As long as COLTS banned all religious/political/advocacy advertising equally, then there wasn’t much atheists could do about it.
But that’s not what they were doing. In fact, since the time Justin’s first ad was rejected, COLTS allowed advertising from the following groups:
a. St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church
b. St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church;
c. Christian Women’s Devotional Alliance;
d. Hope Church;
e. a School Board candidate; and
f. Brewer’s Outlet, a beer distributor; and
g. Old Forge Times, an online blog that contained links to anti-Semitic websites, holocaust denial websites, and white supremacist websites.
So what was really going on here? “Atheists” was controversial because it created a debate about religion… but ads from churches were acceptable?
It seemed pretty obvious that COLTS had no problem with religious advertisements until atheists came along, then they tried retroactively creating a policy that would allow them to block Justin’s ad. At least that’s how he felt.
“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 Justin Vacula, organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”
“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 of Pennsylvania. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”
All of that happened in 2015, and there have been a few legal stumbling blocks along the way, but we finally have a decision from U.S. District Judge Malachy E. Mannion.
Unfortunately, it’s not a favorable one. Mannion says COLTS had every right to reject the ad.
… the court finds that COLTS’ advertising space is a limited forum and that COLTS did not violate Freethought’s First Amendment free speech rights when it refused to display Freethought’s advertisements containing the word “atheists” on COLTS’ buses.
What about all those advertisements from churches that were green-lit? COLTS argued that they weren’t promoting God, per se, just advertising the churches. That’s the same logic they used when accepting the ad with only the NEPA Freethought Society’s name on it.
There is therefore no viewpoint based restriction. COLTS’ content based restriction on promoting or opposing religion is neutral and reasonable.
In short, the least offensive atheist ad ever made was deemed so anti-God that the government was within its right to reject it because it could “potentially affect its revenue or ridership.”
The word “Atheists” — just by itself — is officially too in-your-face for certain religious sensibilities. But an advertisement for a local church is still okay.
Justin told me a decision has not yet been made about whether his side will appeal the ruling. I hope they do, though, because the word “atheists” — without any attachment to a belief — shouldn’t be placed on the same level as people who say “God is good” or “God exists.” Our existence is not up for debate, nor should it be considered controversial.
It’s disappointing atheists have to jump through all these hoops to get the same sort of treatment religious people get automatically. That’s why I’m hoping the fight will continue.
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)