Atheist Ads in Vancouver Get Rejected by Billboard Agency

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that transit officials could not ban political advertising — it was free speech even if it was controversial, so it had to be allowed. The ruling had the wonderfully unintended effect of opening the door for atheists to place ads of their own on buses across the country.

But that ruling applied to public transportation run by the government. What about billboards? They’re usually privately owned, but often on public property…

That question doesn’t have a clear-cut answer and Pattison Outdoor Advertising (a major billboard vendor in Vancouver, British Columbia) is betting that they have a right to reject atheist-themed billboards.

A few months ago, they told the Centre For Inquiry that the ads they submitted would not be accepted by the company:

The reason for the rejection?

… silence. The company offered no explanation at all. (I suppose it’s a total coincidence that its owner, Jim Pattison, is an evangelical Christian.)

It’s baffling to me. Those billboards are positive expressions of Humanism. One features a young woman (“Jenn 13:1 Praying won’t help. Doing will”) while the other features a man (“Dave 27:1 Lead with your heart. Not with your Bible”). If the billboard agency said the “praying won’t help” and “not with your Bible” bits were too offensive, I could live with that, but they didn’t do that. In fact, they gave CFI no guidelines or suggestions on what they would or wouldn’t accept in the future, leaving them with no direction.

And now, CFI plans to take action:

CFI will file a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal for violation of the BC Human Rights Code, which prohibits discrimination in service provision. CFI intends to explore all other legal options.

“CFI has consistently opposed the use of human rights apparatuses as tools of censorship,” said [CFI President Kevin] Smith. “Now we intend to use these mechanisms to protect the right of free speech.”

There are two basic arguments CFI has going for it. One, the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling should extend to billboards on public property just as it extended to public transportation. Two, this could be seen as religious discrimination and human rights laws forbid denying services to people based on their religious beliefs.

According to CFI’s Justin Trottier, the complaint will be filed within the next two weeks.

I’ve contacted Pattison Outdoor for comment and will update this post if/when I hear from them.

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.

  • Richard Thomas

    As frustrating as this is, I don’t know if a private company can be arm-twisted like this.

    • B Dallmann

      Even if it’s a private company, it sounds like the BC Human Rights code could have some influence. I’m assuming the code doesn’t apply only to government organizations.

      • Richard Thomas

        True. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

        Edit: If he is utilizing public land in order to make money, then he shouldn’t be able to discriminate. Position reconsidered (see that, religious people? That’s one of the perks of a non-dogmatic mentality :D ).

    • Agrajag

      It depends on laws, clearly. Where I’m at, discriminating based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religious views is illegal. (with certain narrow exceptions that don’t apply here)

      So just like a private bar that hangs up a sign “we don’t serve blacks!” would be in violation of this law, a company owning billboards who refuse to carry atheist banners, while accepting equivalent banners from other faiths, would be in violation of the law.

  • Tara Wilkins

    The company owner is Jim Pattison, the richest man in British Columbia. He is also a HUGE contributor to Pacific Academy, one of our areas largest private schools that is Christian. It’s really a no brainer why it was rejected.

    • primenumbers

      So he’s a bigot?

      • Mike De Fleuriot

        he is a theist, and that generally has that attribute.

  • RegularJoe

    Rejecting it without any reason whatsoever is…well, lame.

  • Amy Marie

    It may be a private billboard but if its on public land they shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate. Perhaps they could see if they could put up a billboard set-up on public land??? They could rent it & use it whenever its not rented. Maybe a wealthy donor could fund it (hint hint wealthy atheists!)

    • Agrajag

      They should not be able to discriminate no matter whose land it’s on. Being a private company does not give you the right to do anything you damn well please, you still need to stay within the laws of a country.

      And discriminating based on gender, race, religious views or sexual orientation should not be allowed. (and is not, where I’m at (Norway))

      • Ibis3

        It’s not in Canada either. It’s prohibited by both provincial and federal human rights codes.

  • guest

    It’s a shame because the design is really nice. Hope they get them up somewhere.

    • Richard Thomas

      Agreed. As far as the atheist billboards go, these are some of the nicest I’ve seen.

      • skeptical_inquirer

        Perhaps other organizations should hire who did the designs for these.

    • Trickster Goddess

      Yes, good design and great concept with the faux scripture references.

      I don’t care for the photo choice in the first one, though. It looks one of those fake stock photo models. Either that or that’s some really good coffee she has there. Also it doesn’t fit the message. I don’t see how someone pretending to laugh while looking over top of a monitor is ‘doing something that will help’.

      The second one is better with its pensiveness relating to ‘heart’. Still looks like a not-a-real-person though.

      Photo selection aside, it definitely is a step up from the traditional design quality for atheist ads.

      • guest

        Maybe she’s playing Freerice on that computer, or sending some money to charity.

      • Timothy McLean

        You’re sure that’s coffee?

    • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

      Can we share these around on SM? These are awesome.

  • mysticl

    Thank you for posting this … I live in BC and this is the first I’ve heard about this … you can be sure i will be following the outcome very closely … and might be making a call or two myself. As an atheist I would have LOVED to see those billboards in person.

  • firestarter

    It’s a difficult debate when dealing with private interests. You CAN’T force others to be atheistic. Advertising on public land is fine. But you may have to purchase the bench/billboard yourself.

    I know it makes things difficult, but our views can’t be forced on others, just as theirs can’t be forced on us.

    I guess the solution would be more secular companies, and more donations to secular organizations who can then compete with the Christian coffers. I don’t think screaming injustice because an evangelical Christian owns a company, and refuses to publish what he doesn’t agree with. FACT: Being the boss allows you decision making power.

    • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

      Regarding your last sentence particularly, only if it’s a sole proprietorship (or Canadian equivalent, if they’re called something else there). It’s probably incorporated, in which case, no, not necessarily.

      • firestarter

        Either way, trying to strong arm our non-belief on the private sector, even through passive aggressive means, seems wrong.

        I am Canadian, but from Ontario. Provinces have similar laws but they all vary. Most notable would be Quebec.

        It would be up to the provincial courts to decide if a belief/non-belief can be forced on a private media company based on an ad being on public land. I guess the judgment can be appealed in superior court, if it makes it through the appeal process.

        • Little_Magpie

          waves at fellow Ontarian…

        • glenmorangie10

          Whatever the value of your feelings on whether it’s right or wrong to “stong arm”, you’re wrong in terms of the law. A business that offers a service to the public cannot discriminate against a person or group of persons based on a protected ground. Religion is a protected ground, and non belief, freedom from religion, is included in that protection.

    • Guest

      The billboard company is discriminating based on religion and in BC the law says that is a human rights violation… does not get much clearer than that…

      “CFI will file a complaint… for violation of the BC Human Rights Code, which prohibits discrimination in service provision.”

      • UWIR

        While I find it likely that a court will agree with this argument, and I would find that outcome favorable, I’m a bit dubious of this logic. He is discriminating against the religion of the billboard, not the religion of the customer. This is similar to a case where a printer refused to pint a pro-gay pamphlet, and he was fined for discrimination. I think that was a violation of his rights; if he had refused to print the pamphlet because the customers were gay, that would have been different, but to say that a printer isn’t allowed to exercise editorial control over their own speech is a gross violation of freedom of speech.

        • Barry

          “This is similar to a case where a printer refused to pint a pro-gay
          pamphlet, and he was fined for discrimination. I think that was a
          violation of his rights; if he had refused to print the pamphlet because
          the customers were gay, that would have been different, but to
          say that a printer isn’t allowed to exercise editorial control over
          their own speech is a gross violation of freedom of speech.”
          What? Him printing the pamphlets doesn’t restrict his own speech, he provides a service (Printing services), him printing those pamphlets doesn’t mean he’s endorsing their message, the ‘speech’ contained within the pamphlets is the speech of whoever wrote the pamphlets.

          • UWIR

            Printing a pamphlet conveys less of an endorsement than actually writing it, but I find the idea that it conveys nothing at all to be ridiculous. Editorial voice is a type of speech. If speech is speech only of the person saying it, then why do activist groups organize boycotts of companies that advertise on shows they don’t like? If you owned a publishing company, would you feel no obligation, nor right, to refuse service for odious speech?

            If the government were to prohibit Mehta from deleting comments here on his blog that he doesn’t like, would that not be a violation of his free speech?

        • Ibis3

          You’re confusing the owner’s speech with another’s speech on the platform he’s providing to the public for consideration. Those two things are not equivalent. If I own an ISP and sell bandwidth and server space to people, all the stuff people say in their email and on their websites is *not* magically my speech.

    • shayneo

      Yes it does, but it doesnt give you the right to decide to break the law, and at least on a surface reading, it would appear this business owner is breaking the law by discriminating against other spiritual orientations (in this case atheism)

      • Grant

        Atheism is not a spiritual orientation.

        • shayneo

          An orientation is not a belief but a relationship to something. For instance in sexuality, asexuality is considered a sexual orientation (some people literally have no sexual attraction to either gender) despite the fact asexuality means “no sexuality”.

          So in this case , “athiesm is my spiritual orientation” is an accurate term because it states that the persons relationship to spirituality is “I dont have spirituality”.

  • Leah

    What do all the rationalists in the room say to the idea of “leading” with one’s “heart”?

    • Castilliano

      Con: That hearts are what got them to God in the first place.
      That hearts are misleading. (see above)

      Pro: That it appeals to our common humanity; humanistic ideals.
      That juxtaposing heart vs. bible makes a great point.

      Cheers, JMK

    • Drew M.

      That it’s simply a well known idiom being used to encourage empathy over dogma.

    • Drakk

      It’s certainly a step up from leading with the bible. We can progress to leading with one’s head in due course.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I once bought a used car from one of Jim Pattison’s many dealerships. One of those times I ignored too many red flags and got royally ripped off. Happy to have helped line his pockets. Not.

  • Julie Smiley

    So athiests aren’t included in freedom of speech? What a bunch of BS

  • Daniel S Corrado

    And this is why I am getting a tattoo of the Atheist Symbol. The letter A in the middle of an Atom, look it up, proud to be Atheist. lets free this world of brainwashing (all Religions)

  • UWIR

    While, in this particular case, we would like the billboards to be allowed, what about the general principle? If someone wanted to refuse a fundamentalist christian’s billboard, would you be okay with the billboard owner being forced to allow it?

    • Barry

      “If someone wanted to refuse a fundamentalist christian’s billboard,
      would you be okay with the billboard owner being forced to allow it?”
      Yes, as long as there are no attacks against anyone, for instance one that said “God is the way and the truth, come to god before it’s too late” would be fine, but one that said something along the lines of “Homosexuality is a SIN! Repent and pray the gay away now!” shouldn’t be allowed as that is clearly hate speech.

  • $925105

    How is it any different than refusing someone service at a diner because of their religion? It’s discrimination and a clear violation of Canadian law. Here’s to a successful lawsuit.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Adam 3:14

    People need to wear more hats.

    • baal

      I would have gone with, “happy are the pie eaters”.

  • SJH

    So if I own a billboard I should be forced to accept whatever message someone wants to place on it? That makes no sense. Also, just because the billboard itself is on public property does not mean that the space on the billboard is public property. That is simply ridiculous to think that it is.

    • glenmorangie10

      No. If you own a billboard just for the purpose of having a billboard you may do whatever you want with it. But if you make the use of the billboard available to the general public, you cannot choose your clients according to their religious beliefs. Or their gender, or race, or any other protected grounds. Just as you can rent a store space in a strip mall, put a TV in there, and tell everyone they can’t come in. But if you open a convenience store in that same space, open to the public, you can’t announce that it’s only for white men over 40. The distinction lies in whether you offer a service to the public. If you do, you may not discriminate.

      • SJH

        That may be what the government has stated in Canada but I would partially disagree with that. Obviously, you shouldn’t be able to discriminate on the basis of certain things like race or gender but one should be able to discriminate on the basis of conscience. The problem is that Canada (and potentially, the US soon) has decided that discriminating against a persons opinions or beliefs is a bad thing. By disallowing such discrimination you are disallowing freedom of religion and speech as well.
        By forcing me to display (ie speak) something that is contrary to my religion is a violation to my religious freedom and freedom to speak. These are our fundamental rights.
        Regarding your analogy, you are correct, you would not be able to prevent people from accessing you store. That would be immoral and bad business. What you could do however is prevent them from putting a sing in your window that displays something that you disagree with.

        • baal

          Your rule is oppressive. Let’s imagine every billboard company was bought by a evangelical christian and the city won’t allow any more billboards (ugly they are, full saturation is reached). Under your rule, I’d never have a chance to exercise my free speech right. You’d literally have bought my silence against my will. That’s not freedom.

        • glenmorangie10

          If the convenience store goes into the business, or otherwise offers out to the general public the opportunity to post signs in its window, then yes, it cannot discriminate simply because it disagrees with the message. You seem to place a lot of stock in conflating the selling of billboard space with the seller’s personal speech. If you believe that anything printed on a billboard you own is the same as you personally “speaking” the message that is on the billboard, then just come up with your own messages and put them on your own billboards. Don’t go into the business of selling billboard space. But if you put it out to the public that you are open for business, and that your business is letting other people speak by printing things on billboards you own, then you abide by the law of the land and don’t discriminate. If you offer a service, you accept that people have a right to equal treatment when purchasing that service, and you accept your own duty to provide that service without discrimination. Don’t want to give up what you believe is your freedom of expression? Then don’t be in the business of selling the opportunity for others to express themselves.

        • Aernz

          Your opinion that conscience is sancrosact is utterly preposterous. Do you think there weren’t people who refused to allow blacks equal rights based on their own conscience? Of course there were.

          Conscience can be whatever you want it to be. It is no excuse to discriminate, nor should it be allowed as one.

          • SJH

            I don’t think it was conscience. I think it was culture. And although culture can aid in determining ones conscience, I think it goes beyond that.

            Also, regardless if conscience is purely cultural or not, I understand that people can claim conscience so I understand the relevance of the issue that you raise.
            It seems that there should be a balance. In any given society and in any given point in history, there needs to be a balance of priorities between conscience and fairness. So I agree, conscience is not sacrosanct. But neither is fairness.

            Life does not always have to be fair. This is a good example of a person who wants to be treated fairly at the expense of the valid conscience rights of another. What is more important, that a person has the ability to post something on a particular billboard even though there are others where he is welcome or that a person has the right to refrain from being part of a particular type of expression. After all, can’t he find another billboard?

            What the atheist side seems to be arguing is that religion has no place outside of a persons home or church. Once they enter into any sort of affiliation with any person outside home or church then they have no right to speech. This strikes me a more dangerous than the lack of fairness that the individual is experiencing.

            I can, of course, see the opposite side which someone else here has raised which is that if all billboards are owned by Christians who choose to act unfairly then the atheist has no speech. Theoretically, this is possible but that is not where we are in our society. Hopefully, before we get to that point we will find a balance that works for the society.

            There does not have to be only two possible, polar opposites here. We can work together in the middle. apparently the atheist in this story does not want to do that.

            • baal

              ” After all, can’t he find another billboard?”
              Not always and it’s beside the point.

              Blacks riding in the back of the bus still got to where they are going right? I don’t want to equate the two acts of bigotry as equal but the underlying concept is the same. If you want to discriminate, you might want to check to see if your rule (religious conscientious means exemption from holding public places open to all comers) would be acceptable if someone else’s group was doing the discriminating.

              • SJH

                Making a black person feel like a second class citizen because the community is racist against them and therefor forcing them to sit at the back of the bus is very different then a single person having a moral disagreement with one other person and not wanting to support the perpetuation of an philosophy. Surely you can see the difference in the two.

  • SJH

    I like how the slogan, “good without God.” has morphed into, “Without God, We’re all good.” Although the first slogan has truth to it since, of course, a person can be good without believing in God. This is obvious to anyone with intelligence since we all have Christian values engrained in us. The second slogan, however, is not true at all. We are not ALL good without God because the human race is far from perfect and it is not possible for ALL of us to be good.
    What is interesting is that the statement has taken on the more fundamentalist nature of speaking in extremes.

    • baal

      I award you a 3/4 point. “Without God, We’re all good.” can be read as a false statement (not all are good therefor whole phrase is wrong). There is another way to read it. Without ‘god’ (and religion, sin, good vs evil etc, original sin), noone starts off as ‘evil’ or needing to be ‘saved’. Then we’re all ‘good’.

    • Anna

      This is obvious to anyone with intelligence since we all have Christian values engrained in us.

      Wow. I suppose you believe that lifelong atheists such as myself were taught those values by our culture, but what about people in countries with tiny Christian populations? Places where the vast majority of people grow up never encountering Christians or “Christian values?” Are the people in Bhutan or Tibet not good?

  • glenmorangie10

    Ugh. Americans and misguided Canadians, supposedly skeptics all. Please stop making broad statements about what a business can or cannot do if you have no idea what the law is. In B.C., and in most of the provinces of Canada, if you offer a service to the public, you cannot discriminate when offering that service. There are some specific and limited exceptions to that rule, but those exceptions do not generally depend on whether public land or publc funds are used. This is Canada, remember? The big bad socialist boogieman? We make laws that protect people against other people.

    By all means, argue over whether these laws are right or wrong, helpful or harmful, but do not blithely explain to us what the law says if you can’t be bothered to read http://www.bclaws.ca/Recon/document/ID/freeside/00_96210_01#section1 .

    • firestarter

      Section 8 “Discrimination in accommodation, service and facility” does not cover and individual’s right to discriminate based on the content of the message, only denial of service based on client discrimination.

      This has been stated several times in this forum, and it is understood that this will be ruled upon by a judge.

      I suggest you read section 8 to find anything stating that a private company is required to publish material it does not want associated with its company image.

      There is a huge grey area, and it is only clear cut if the reason for not publishing is because the client was and atheist.

  • Rain

    Those are really great billboards.


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