This is How An Atheist Got an Entire Transit System to Ban Religious Ads

I posted yesterday about activist Justin Vacula‘s 18-month-long attempt to get an atheist ad on buses in the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) in Pennsylvania.

The ad he submitted to them wasn’t an attack on religion. Hell, it wasn’t really even a promotion of atheism. All the ad did was mention the dreaded “A” word:

(Maybe the COLTS leadership just hates periods?)

On Tuesday, in response to Justin, the COLTS Board of Directors passed a newly-revised advertising policy that bans all forms of religious advertising. The ban is so far-reaching that it effectively bans ads promoting churches, quoting Bible verses, and even mentioning religion.

COLTS will not accept advertising…

… that 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 or lack of religious beliefs; or are otherwise religious in nature.

All this just to prevent an ad that says “Atheists.” from going on county buses.

Their refusal letter to Justin last week already went over-the-top when they said his ad “may offend or alienate a segment of [COLTS] ridership and [could] thus negatively affect its revenue” — as if Christian ads implying that non-Christians were hellbound were perfectly acceptable? — but this new policy is like killing a fly with a drone missile.

Also, I find it hard to believe that anyone would stop riding the bus because of a paid advertisement that said “Atheist.” (It’s like the COLTS board is saying, “Stop giving us money! You’re going to make us lose money!”)

It’s especially interesting to see this new policy go into effect when you consider that COLTS had no problem last year running messages saying “God Bless America,” suggesting a pro-life stance, or linking to a website promoting Holocaust denialism and white supremacy.

But, you know, “Atheist.” might offend someone.

Still, their fear of a mild atheist ad just eliminated every annoying religious ad on Lackawanna County public transit from now on. It wasn’t Justin’s intention, but I don’t think anyone will mind at all.

Just give it time, though. I suspect in a few weeks we’ll be hearing ironic whining from religious groups about how this new policy is anti-Christian.

(via Justin Vacula)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Oranje

    Yeah, the policy is overkill, but COLTS did brilliant business trading for Trent Richardson.

    /wait, what?

  • the moother

    The tipping point…. is getting close.

  • OCRazor

    We’ll have to wait as long as a few weeks? I’ll take that bet.

    And I’ll go so far as to say they’ll probably blame Justin and those ‘damn atheists’, who never even asked for a ban on religious advertising in the first place.

  • jdm8

    It would have been interesting if they tried a “Damn Atheists!” sign, to see if that would fly.

    Did you excise the comment about not crediting Justin’s organization for the policy? It seems so silly for them to suggest “we’ve been working on this policy all along”. It sounds like a policy they dashed together in a bid to avoid litigation on the topic.

    At any rate, the policy is heavy handed, but I’m OK with not having religion ads on busses.

  • LesterBallard

    I’ll take that trade.

  • Dangerous Talk

    On a separation of church/state grounds, this is good but from an advertising standpoint, not so much. Everyone knows that Christians exist and anyone can find a church on any street corner. Many atheists not currently involved in the movement don’t know that there are other atheists out there and even if they do, they don’t know where to find them. We need to advertise our existence; Christianity doesn’t.

  • A3Kr0n

    Works for me.

  • Gus

    This is a good outcome. But I’m fascinated by their argument that they would “lose revenue”. Do they understand how transit works? Do they think there are a lot of people on the buses who actually have a choice about it? Or are they afraid no one else would want to advertise on a bus that had that ad? I think they’d gain more from the ad than they’d lose in ridership, and I think anyone with money to advertise who was offended by the ad would be more likely to create an ad in opposition than to stop advertising. No, I think this move will be the thing that costs them revenue. Had they accepted all religious advertising, then we’d see a bus ad war between Christians and atheists, and maybe Jews and Muslims as well. It would be a revenue boon. Then they could lower rates for those people who have no choice but to ride the bus to get to work.

  • Paul Reed

    Just wear atheist t-shirts on the bus

  • Gus

    What tipping point?

  • Rain

    I thought they were some type of booze.

  • Mick

    The COLTS advertising crew may have been considering the feelings of the passengers and they may have also considered potential revenue losses, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking more like this: “Look at me Jesus. See how I try to help you. Surely this is enough to guarantee my place in heaven?”

  • Eliot Parulidae

    Bad idea. I was subject to a stranger’s “testimony” after he saw me reading A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, which doesn’t even allude to evolution on the cover. If I wore an atheist T-shirt on the bus I could give someone a stroke.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Everyone knows that Christians exist…

    Well they claim to be Christians, but no true Christians exist.

  • rhodent

    I can’t help but suspect that COLTS is hoping that in a few months they’ll be able to quietly change the policy back and start accepting religious advertising again. They might even go so far as to do this, then change it back to none allowed if Vacula tries to advertise a second time.

    When (not if) the inevitable shitstorm hits because a Christian group tries to advertise and is turned down, Vacula needs to make it a point to resubmit an application for his ad, just as a friendly little reminder to COLTS that they won’t get away with running Christian ads and not atheist ads.

  • 3lemenope

    The descent of crime in NYC and the ascent of Hush Puppies. I can’t help but think they’re connected, somehow.

  • 3lemenope

    You should get them a bus boycott. Christians love bus boycotts.

  • 3lemenope

    We need to advertise our existence; Christianity doesn’t.

    They need the ads for retention purposes, a constant reminder to feel guilty for not having attended services the prior Sunday. We don’t have that problem.

  • Bear Millotts

    I’m skeptical that this ban will affect church advertisements and bet that COLTS will still allow them, as it’s only promoting a building (i.e. a church) and not a religious belief. Though if I am correct, then there will be hell to pay and a major slap-down on the COLTS leadership.

  • newavocation

    Ha, so much for Christmas or Easter type holiday ads!

  • newavocation

    Hey what about forming a ‘science’ group and advertise with science quotes?

  • Itarion

    As far as advertisements go, that is one of the most bland and unintrusive I have ever seen.
    As far as reactions to advertisements go, this is one of the funniest I have ever seen.
    And technically, this new rule in no way prevents the advertisement of advocacy organizations which happen to be primarily atheist. Provided that the main purpose of the organization is political rather than areligious, there’s no legitimate interference from the new rule. (Illegitimate, yeah. The “or is otherwise religious” clause is rather abusable.)
    I’m thinking an ad that goes something like “We’re all people trying to live our lives.”

  • Mike Holton

    Most of the best Christians I know are atheists.

  • badgerchild

    I am actually having trouble understanding how the ad as pictured actually violates the new policy. It does not promote or address or criticize a religious or nonreligious issue. It is not “otherwise religious in nature”. It is nothing more than an announcement that there there is a group with a certain name and website, and containing a word referencing its target audience.

  • Paul Little

    Agree. The key here is continued vigilance to ensure they enforce their own policy in both directions.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    I can’t understand how any atheists posting here are satisfied with this new ad policy. What are they THINKING?? Not only does it stifle an entire class of speech, but it helps drive atheists back to “invisible” status by denying us an affordable advertising medium. Meanwhile the believers still have their ostentatious buildings and signs all over the community, spreading THEIR messages at no additional cost to them.

  • John H

    I disagree that the inability to install a semi-permanent message in a space with a captive audience is an attack on free speech. I’d really rather there be no adverts at all on buses, since I don’t think public space should be licensed for the exclusive use of anyone at all (and yes, I have the same feelings about the FCC licensing segments of the radio spectrum, for example). It’s especially bad when public transit is necessary for survival for a lot of people, so the messaging is inherently coercive. I therefore consider banning a particular class of adverts to be a step in the right direction, though not nearly far enough.

  • Paul Reed

    “If I wore an atheist T-shirt on the bus I could give someone a stroke.”

  • John H

    I mean, they’re a non-profit public-sector service, so they shouldn’t actually be concerned about revenue in the first place (really, public transit should be entirely funded by taxes). As for worries about offending passengers or making them otherwise uncomfortable: I find all advertising in public space offensive. I suspect that everyone who hasn’t bough in to the neoliberal economic con job feels similar. So they should really just ban adverts entirely. That they haven’t suggests that this very much is about maintaining institutionalized religious privilege and not concern for revenues nor passenger comfort.

  • abb3w

    Or, alternatively, make a point of re-submitting it every month or three despite the policy, to serve as a steady reminder that changing the policy will have consequences.

  • abb3w

    It would appear to fall within the scope of the new policy by making “address” to “religious beliefs”, by noting the existence of a class of people with a disbelief in God. The name “Freethought” might also be a red flag; contrariwise, taking it that way might constitute an impermissible restriction on a limited forum by limiting the type of group that may advertise — arguably even worse than discrimination by content.

  • allein

    The shoes or the food item?

  • abb3w

    What about simply changing the existing ad from “Atheists.” to “Science.” and re-submitting, just to see what would happen?

    Or do they need to go all out, and try running a “Puppies are cute” ad?

  • abb3w

    That would seem almost certain grounds for a lawsuit, yes.

  • allein

    That looks interesting…

    *adds to ever-growing list of things to read*

  • Richard Wade

    (demonstration line chant) Pup-pies! Pup-pies! Pup-pies! Pup-pies!

  • David Kopp

    I don’t think anyone is really satisfied with it, other than the fact that it’s at least equal treatment. And now, it’s waiting for them to be hoist by their own petard.

  • randomfactor

    Wait, they’re not both?

  • 3lemenope


  • Itarion

    Hey, yeah! If the Christians boycott the buses because of this new rule, then the bus co. will have to post the ad because of pressure from both sides. No win situation, here we come!

  • Paul Reed

    Are you thinking of Slush Puppies…?

    [Edit: Never heard of the cornbread ball thing until I Googled it... You live & learn...]

  • Q. Quine

    I see this as a good result. I will gladly take the loss of getting the word “Atheist” out in front of the public for dropping the flood of religious propaganda that we must endure day by day. There are plenty of other places for promotion to continue, and among the next generation there is nothing that measures up to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, where the strength of the non-religious community shines. Those concerned with bus ads will fade away with time and demographics.

  • Mairianna

    Would it be a violation of their policy if NEPA took the word “Atheist” out of the ad and just advertised their organization?

  • allein

    Haha…and I had to google Slush Puppies :)

  • AxeGrrl

    Your title for this blogpost is perfect Hemant…….

    *imagining some angry believers clicking on the story thinking ‘there go those atheists, persecuting us as usual’*

  • Without Malice

    Excuse me, but if you’re selling ad space on a bus but then institute a policy of not allowing ads by religious groups or atheist groups, chances are you’ll get sued by both the religious and atheists for discrimination.

  • Derrik Pates

    Watch, they’ll try to make an argument about how Christmas-related advertising with clearly Christian messages aren’t actually Christian, and so don’t count.

  • spookiewon

    A class of speech that is not free to begin with. It is, as COLTS points out, a private forum, NOT a public one.

  • Intelligent Donkey

    Could be fun to change the original ad to say “Damned Atheists!” instead of “Atheists.”, but keep the rest of the ad unchanged.

    Or “Those God-damned Atheists, they’re everywhere!”.

    Different wording, but much the same message really.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    The original advert was advertising a webspace and the group that runs it rather than a religious belief, so I think they’d be screwed if they tried that.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    I’m sure that without the advertisements, the bus tickets would be more expensive which would prove a more tangible problem for those that rely on buses to survive.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    COLTS is a publicly owned transit agency. Whether they create a designated public forum (which is what they have really done by accepting any advertising at all, despite their protestations to the contrary) or a closed forum, they can’t allow some speech by outside organizations/businesses, but disallow religious/anti-religious speech. If they want to ban ALL advertising and only post their own transit-related messages, that would be fine. But they can’t pick on religious speech.

  • badgerchild

    If I make a sign that says “Bacon.” and reference “Lackawanna Smokehouse“, do I impermissibly refer to kosher and halal rules? Only if someone complains?

  • abb3w

    Since none of those terms given in your suggested ad are prevalently used religiously, it would appear to be permissible. In contrast, “freethought” appears to primarily have been used in religious contexts over

    Hebrew National might conceivably run into trouble advertising their kosher hot dogs if the policy was strictly enforced, and would probably have standing to sue over the current policy (and a case that could survive summary dismissal) if they cared to throw fuel on the fire. I suspect it would be more likely the bus company would allow the ad, which would trigger standing for an atheist lawsuit based on discriminatory application of the policy.

    I suspect a more direct approach for the Atheists would be to file suit against COLTS based on impermissible viewpoint discrimination, pointing to Rosenberger v UVA. However, I am not a lawyer.

  • Ryan Clement

    You’re aware that we control the radio spectrum so that we can continue to use radio as a species right? Do you know nothing of physics? Radio becomes useless when everyone can spam the open airwaves turning all but the most massive of signals into unreadable white noise. Maybe spend less time using your ‘free speech’ and read a book.

  • Fred Bailey

    The courts have said that “In God We Trust” doesn’t count. Stranger things have certainly happened.

  • krystine

    Great, then no Christmas sale ads will appear there either!! Yay! I believe in freedom of thought, which is what religion is. But when people extend that out of their minds and think they have the right to use resources on a calendar basis for something in their head, they are being disrespectful to all things on this planet that live. Long ago a few people doing something ritually may not have impacted the world as much, but now we must use the minds we have to see that, ie, millions of people in a river washing sins away is undoubtedly going to affect the ecosystem of that area. Just like any other religion that reaches into physical needs like cutting down trees and celebrating and gorging whether there was a good harvest or not. I don’t care if your religion tells you to whip yourself, you are doing that to yourself. But when it comes to resources that everything living on this planet has an EQUAL right to, let these beliefs in your head stay there and hence not impact the world with your need to take resources to build new temples or get your word out. If you believe in God, God built you a temple, it’s called the Earth. You never needed to build anything more. Respect what is here. Find beauty in the growing things around you that support you. Connect to what’s real. Love that which lives, your brothers and sister of all colors, and all creatures the same.