Least Offensive Atheist Ad Ever Leads to New Advertising Policy in Pennsylvania County

More than a year and a half ago, atheist Justin Vacula and the NEPA Freethought Society attempted to place the following ad on buses in the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) in Pennsylvania:

That’s almost literally the least offensive atheist ad ever. It says the word, then shuts up.

COLTS rejected the ad, calling it too “controversial.”

Justin appealed the decision with the help of American Atheists, but the COLTS leaders didn’t change their minds.

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.

A week ago, Justin tried one last time. He submitted a similar ad. Once again he was rejected. And yesterday, COLTS voted on a new policy that’ll 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.

To be sure, you could argue that an ad simply reading “Atheists” is religiously neutral… but hey, they passed a policy that now prohibits religious and non-religious advertising. Equality for all, right?

I like how they refuse to credit Justin or the NEPA Freethought Society as the reason they voted on the issue yesterday… I’m sure the fact that COLTS could have faced legal action for denying them the ad had nothing to do with it, either.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Bitter Lizard

    A billboard reading “Athi*sts” is offensive. It infringes on my right to believe that there are no athi*sts.

    And athi*sm is a religion!

    • Paul Little

      Spelling is my religion.

      • Tainda

        Lizard, you’re on a roll! hahahaha

        • allein

          That should be “your” ;)

          • Tainda

            Hahaha I just noticed I put “role” HAHAHA

            • allein

              I was assuming it was deliberate, given BL’s post. :p

              • Tainda

                Yeah, yeah…it was… *ninja*

      • Bitter Lizard

        Stalin!

  • Rain

    I’m sure the fact that COLTS could have faced legal action for denying them the ad had nothing to do with it, either.

    They didn’t even know about that because the dog ate their homework. They were completely innocent. They were shocked, shocked that the dog ate their homework and gambling was going on.

  • bananafaced

    atheism – noun – disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
    religion – noun – the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods:

    By definition, atheism is NOT a religion.

    • Tainda

      I yelled at Wiki the other day (yeah, I know) looking up Paul Bettany because I couldn’t remember a certain movie and it said “Religion: Atheist” lol

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        I just yell whenever I see Paul Bettany.

        Then I throw my underwear at the screen.

        • Tainda

          Me too! Small world ;)

    • vincent findley

      Says the highest court in the land it is!

      • bananafaced

        “…Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals…they didn’t declare that atheism was a religion, they declared that atheism was afforded equal protection with religions under the Establishment Clause.” – Matt Dillahunty, ACA

        I’m inclined to believe that if the “Church of Atheism” were to file for “tax exempt” status it would be turned down and there would ensue a long and divisive court battle. If Atheism is not a religion under the tax code, it could not be considered a religion with all the “afforded equal protections” under the Establishment Clause. Wonder when that court case will be filed?

        • vincent findley

          Is the Seventh Circuit Court Of Appeals the new highest court in the land? Your faction will never be turned down for that exemption, the reason you all don’t take it as I have said in the past is you will be admitting you’re a religion.

          • bananafaced

            You are referring to the Torcaso v. Watkins case by the 1961 U.S. Supreme Court where the 1st and 14th amendments were decided to be involved. “The appellant Torcaso was appointed to the office of Notary Public by the Governor of Maryland but was refused a commission to serve because he would not declare his belief in God.” Kaufman v. McCaughtry is a 2005 Wisconsin Federal Court ruling. “Wisconsin inmate James Kaufman filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming as relevant here that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights.” Here is the scope of a federal court like the seventh: “In general, federal courts may decide cases that involve the United States government, the United States Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments.” – uscourts.gov I still say that “by definition” (see above), atheism is NOT a religion.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            as I have said in the past is you will be admitting you’re a religion.

            Your being too stupid to understand what words mean is not an argument for anything but your need for remedial education.

        • Erp

          Actually non-theistic religious like organizations are treated like religions fof tax purposes in the US if they so wish. Notably the Ethical Society of Austin which the Texas Comptroller tried taxing (1997) as a non-religion since they didn’t require a belief in God; they sued and won at several levels (the Comptroller gave up appealing when the Texas Supreme court refused to hear her (2004)). The Texas Comptroller (a different one) also went after a Unitarian Universalist Church (2004 before the final word from the Texas Supreme Court) since it didn’t have “one system of belief”.

          • bananafaced

            Good to know. Sorry, I don’t live in TX but I’ll let all my relatives who live there know about this.

      • Baby_Raptor

        No, they didn’t say Atheism is a religion, they said that it deserves the same treatment as religions.

        And if they declared that Christianity wasn’t a religion, would you trumpet that? Or does their opinion only matter when you think it agrees with yours?

        • vincent findley

          As is obvious on this site that their opinion only matters when it agrees with yours.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Their opinion always matters, because they have legal authority. Whether they are right depends on their reasoning. In this case, they used logic and reason, things you discard in favor of the sound of the gnashing of your teeth and pissy dishonesty.

            You know, like when you lied about what SCOTUS said, then, when corrected by Baby_Raptor, angrily changed the subject. Why do you lie before Jesus, Vincent?

      • RedGreenInBlue

        According to the Supreme Court (Nix v. Hedden 1893), the tomato is a vegetable, for taxation purposes. And yet it still develops from a single ovary of a tomato flower to form a fleshy pericarp containing seeds – i.e. it is a fruit.

        But if atheism is in fact a religious belief system (as opposed to the provisional conclusion that no deities exist, based on lack of evidence, and the philosophical consequences of that conclusion) then what are the beliefs we hold in the same way that, e.g. Catholics believe in the Virgin Birth, or that Shia Muslims believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the rightful successor to Muhammad?

        • vincent findley

          And has since evolved into a fruit 120yrs later. 1893? give me a freekin brake! How’s my grammar?

          • islandbrewer

            Your grammar is still far better than your logic.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

            Wrong. It’s always been a fruit — technically, a berry.

  • Brian

    While the ad is not offensive, at least the city is being consistent in restricting ANY kind of religious or non-religious ads.

    So, if it gives one less option for organized religion to plaster their stuff in public, then its still a good thing.

    • SluttyMary

      The problem is they won’t. They will approve Salvation Army adverts and other religious adverts because their personal religious views trumps any policy.

      • Belaam

        And then you have grounds for a lawsuit. Without this policy, there are grounds now. With it, they’ll just have to wait until they run religious ads. I suspect the end result will be the same.

    • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

      As much as we may not LIKE religious speech, why should such speech (or atheist speech, for that matter) be banned from *adverstisements*? No reasonable person would interpret such ads as being governmental endorsement, but merely ads placed by private parties. So there’s no Establishment Clause issue (plus, for the true morons of the Scranton area, COLTS is requiring a disclaimer).

  • John Williams

    Equality and fairness doesn’t always mean you get what you want. They should of had this policy to begin with however.

    • HollowGolem

      Should’ve! JESUS CHRIST PEOPLE, NEVER SAY “SHOULD OF!”

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        *should have!

      • John Williams

        Since I’ve clearly offended you, my apologies. Typing isn’t my forte when I just get home from work (I’m on PST). Clearly, small grammatical errors are akin to kicking a baby to you, so again apologies are offered.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          It’s a bit of a linguistic peeve for some of us, especially when we see it day in and day out. “I would of,” “I could of,” “I should of”.

          I understand where the mistake comes from — “could’ve”, “would’ve”, “should’ve”, it all sounds a lot like “of” rather than “have” — but that’s no excuse for sloppy writing, and this is something that I’m pretty sure is covered in elementary school.

          • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

            yabbut grammar and spelling nazis are boring, too. it used to bother me, but what with education being what it is these days, i can’t muster the energy to blame the results of our fucked up system that denies young minds real training. plus, the interwebs and tech mean that most of us are using terms like ‘nym’ and ‘rofl’ and suchlike.

            languages evolve. in every generation there is a GOML* group who can’t stand that no one says “whippersnapper” or “obd’t.” anymore. our version is the spelling on the internet police. it’s often used to discredit an otherwise valid comment, and that has come to annoy me more over the years than bad spelling. i don’t even care if it is the result of laziness, sloppiness or ignorance. look at me; i don’t capitalize and i misuse punctuation frequently. sue me.

            *we have a lot of fun with this one at the elder blog i read. heh.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Also, “Should’ve” should be in quotation marks, there should be a comma after “CHRIST”, and your second exclamation mark should be outside the quotation marks JESUS WEPT

  • Tainda

    As long as they don’t accept religious ads, I’m fine with it.

    • Rafael

      Of course, against free thought.

  • Liz Heywood

    I still think we need a billboard that says “This Is A Sign” with an atheist group’s contact info in small print in the corner. :-)

    • storm

      Geez, how much more offensive can you get? That acknowledges atheists exist and we good religious Americans find that very offensive!

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Nuh, make it “This Is Not A Sign”. Really fuck with their heads.

      • Pupienus

        Ceci n’est pas une sign.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          Ah, Magritte…

  • mthrnite

    Idunno.. I’d have some qualms about getting on a bus that said “Mormons.” on the side. I can see why there’s a problem with this.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

      mcdonald’s is destroying the environment to make profit off selling people poison cardboard. att is using union and fair trade busting to get ahead and make their executives richer. nbc promotes war and is owned by a weapons manufacturer.

      i have to get on a bus with their ads, and those from companies ten times more evil. the mormon, and me, both deserve the right to buy bus space. or, none of us do, and let’s be fucking done with this stupid idea that public space is advertising space. how about just the words “the XXX bus” and a route number? i can live with that.

  • SeekerLancer

    I keep thinking of that “Aliens” image macro.

  • bamcintyre

    So, based on this policy, I see that they would reject any ad about guns and gun control, vaccinations, climate change, renewable energy? All of these could be construed as contentious if not religious issues, the same way that Atheism is.

    • Oranje

      CS could argue any ad for medical care is a religious issue.

  • SattaMassagana

    Justin, you are total awesome. An actual activist in world of bloggers. Never stop standing up for whats right.

  • Peter Packiam

    Hi Hemant
    You Guys are doing a great job….keep it going…Cheers

  • Gabriel

    It will be interesting to see if they follow through with this policy. Will they turn down advertising from a local church? If they do it will probably cause an uproar when the the preacher goes on the local news and accuses them of being secret atheist commies denying him and his church their freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Or will they just let churches advertise on the side of buses.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Okay it’s time to actually try the “Puppies are Cute” or the “Please Drive Carefully” ads.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/26/really-really-really-inoffensive-atheist-billboards/

    This will test if their policy is about prohibiting religious topics in the bus ads, or if it is about prohibiting religious or atheist organizations from advertising anything at all.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Didn’t one convention do “Kittens Are Cute”? IIRC, the theists claimed that they were trying to lure children to indoctrinate them, because projection.

      My beef with that ad was that it had three pictures of housecats, and none of them were kittens. >.<

      Rereading your old post makes me wonder about that last image: "Worship At Our Church of BURN FOREVER. (signed) First Church of God's Perfect Love". If one were to make a billboard that read,

      Worship Jesus Christ As We Describe Him or BURN FOREVER
      (visit [insert name of local fundy church here])

      Would said church even have any reason to complain?

      • guest

        I also was very irritated by the picture of adult cats on an ad talking about kittens! You’d think a bunch of skeptics could at least get that right. :)

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          They probably got distracted by teh kyoot.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Sorry, could you repeat that? I was busy watching all the cat gifs on Jerry Coyne’s bl*g.

            • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

              *gone cat-atonic*

              • C.L. Honeycutt

                God I love that one. I’ve shown it to two people while they were in the middle of acting like that.

                • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

                  It’s true — get me in range of a cat (even a large cat) and I’m reduced to squees of “kitteh!”

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Despite my writing Skepticon about it, I never learned of any confirmed reaction from the public about their “Kittens” billboard. All I ever found were comments by atheists imagining what objections theists might express. So that execution of my proposed experiment has not yielded any reliable data.

        …other than the cats-instead-of-kittens complaints from atheists, which linger on. ;)

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          ARRRGH KITTEN NERD RAGE

          *comically attempts to smash keyboard, ends up needing band-aids and Tylenol*

  • Matt Bowyer

    The mere existence of Atheists is offensive to some people.

  • Anna

    As long as they’re consistent about it, I think it’s a good thing to have a no-religion policy for bus ads.

  • Oranje

    Buses are as rare as atheists where I live.

    I kid. We don’t have buses.

  • Ian Norton

    It doesn’t even “promote the nonexistence of a supreme being”, it advertises a community of people who do not believe in any.

    By that measure, an advertisement for the Salvation Army shouldn’t be allowed either, because apparently it’s based on the religious/non-religious affiliation of the group being advertised rather than the message on the advertisement itself…

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    There are several problems with this situation, and every reason to sue COLTS, despite their changed policy. First, Justin was deprived of due process since he made his applications while the OLD policy was in effect, so the new policy is irrelevant in Justin’s case. Second, while the new policy may prevent the appearance of endorsement of religion over atheism, or vice versa, it still treats religious (and atheist) speech differently from most other types of speech, especially commercial speech. Since when do corporations and other commercial enterprises have greater speech rights than individuals, including religious individuals? It would seem that religious leaders should JOIN Justin in fighting what COLTS has done. And, as others have mentioned, the mere word “Atheists” does not take a position on the existence or nonexistence of supreme beings. All it does is acknowledge the existence of a WORD that describes people who do not BELIEVE in such supreme beings. So, where is the “controversy” that this sign will generate??? I’ll bet you that COLTS is terrified of an anti-Islam ad, and the possibility of terrorists targeting a bus…..but how do we get them to admit that publicly?

  • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

    More information including COLTS’ refusal letter:

    http://justinvacula.com/2013/09/19/atheists-bus-advertisement-again-rejected/

    - Justin Vacula

  • Pupienus

    Typical. Like the schools that banned ALL student orgs when told they couldn’t ban just Teh Gheys & Friends, those people would cut off their nose to spite their face.

  • T_Party_is_Anti_Progress

    “promote the existence or a non existent supreme being” the mental acrobatics are amazing. How is the word promoting anything. Its actually promoting nothing….hah hah, hah. At least it keeps the crosses of the bus

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/girlwriteswhat/videos Astrokid

    You are a feminist, right Hemant?
    Try posting this similarly harmless ad on your facebook. Its apparently ‘against Facebook guidelines’ (presumably the recently feminist guidelines, coz such posters were fine in the past), and gets deleted. And account gets temporarily banned .
    http://www.avoiceformen.com/portal/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/AVFM_ad_for_Queens_park_HomelessBoy.pdf

    For Atheist-Feminists out there, Where’s the humanity in railing against one injustice, while perpetrating the same injustice on others?

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Men and boys aren’t discriminated against, you lying misogynist tool.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/girlwriteswhat/videos Astrokid

        Thats your opinion and you are entitled to it.
        It doesnt do anything to counter a peaceful and non-violent free-expression of their ideas. Just like Atheists have a right to do the same.

  • Tobias2772

    Maybe this is old hat, but it just jumped into my mind – “Atheists – We actually exist !”


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