US bus company's rejection of an atheist ad sparks a lawsuit

US bus company's rejection of an atheist ad sparks a lawsuit November 14, 2017

Residents of Scranton, Pennsylvania, are a godly bunch. So devout, in fact, that a local bus company rejected the ad pictured above because it feared the word ‘atheists’ it might spark violence.
The rejection of the ad by the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) occurred in 2015, and shortly after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against COLTS – but the case has only just come to federal court.

Yesterday, according to this report, lawyers representing the ACLU and Justin Vacula, above, of the NEPA FreeThought Society, alleged that the rejection was a violation of the the atheist group’s right to free speech.
Vacula said:

In this area religion is particularly popular and the viewpoint of atheists or secularists is very unpopular. As an organization we’re seeking to provide a community of supports and have our face in the public.

COLTS argued the advertisement violated a policy set-up in 2013 which prohibited ads that specifically mention politics or religion among other things.
The bus company argues its policy is reasonable because it worries about heated debates or even fights breaking out.
The ad was shown to several bus riders in Scranton on Monday who weighed in on the issue.
Raymond Ward of Carbondale said:

That could be taken several ways so I see why that would be offensive to some people and they’d want to give COLTS hell and COLTS doesn’t want to start that!

While some people took issue with the proposed ad others didn’t and they felt it should have run. Eileen Masters of Scranton said:

Just like anyone else they can advertise. I don’t know what the problem is.

And Anthony Demor, of Rochester, NY, said:

I don’t have an issue with it. It’s expressing another type of mindset, a different type of culture

He thinks the advertisement could have actually sparked meaningful discussion.

One of the biggest Christian lessons, I think, is to always accept other people, trust in your neighbor and build a community.

The judge on Monday was asked to declare COLTS advertising policy unconstitutional but it’s likely a decision won’t be made until at least early 2018.
The judge gave lawyers on both sides more time to file legal arguments before he makes a final decision.
The NEPA FreeThought Society is not seeking any monetary damages from its lawsuit. The group says it is still interested in running its advertisement.

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  • H3r3tic

    “Raymond Ward of Carbondale said:
    That could be taken several ways so I see why that would be offensive to some people” – I had to scroll back up and review the proposed advert, and then the comment I’ve quoted above several times. I’m still no closer to the answer. Please folks, somebody explain how that advert could be “offensive to some people…..”

  • Laura Roberts

    If in fact the company has adhered to its policy not to put religious or political messages on its buses, then they might have a case. I’ve seen worse violations, such as billboard or bus companies that frequently advertise for churches (often at reduced rates) but refuse to do so for atheist groups.
    But, yes, hard to see how the sign would offend anyone.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    @H3r3tic: To a lot of people, the existence of atheists is offensive so being reminded that not everyone is religious would blow their tiny little minds.

  • AgentCormac

    Apart from the ad being innocuous enough, I have no idea what it’s trying to achieve. Is it supposed to inform? Persuade? Educate? Attract more members? What? There simply doesn’t seem to be any point to it.

  • Rob Andrews

    The ad doesn’t knock any particular belief. Or even religion or god itself. It simply says it was put out by” the free thought” society.
    But they may have a legal case ,if it’s the COLTS policy to reject all religious or political ads. But I hope the Freethinker will do a followup on this story.

  • Arnold

    The beliefs of many, if not most, christians are so fragile, despite strenuous denials to the contrary, that they fear any criticism or or someone shining a light to illuminate the fact that their religion is an invention of mankind and is so undermined by facts and data that it is at risk of collapse. They know they are defending the indefensible and therfore hate to be confronted by atheist ideas against which they have no plausible defence.

  • gedediah

    Private companies have a right to their own policies as long as they don’t discrimiate unfairly and are applied consistently. It’s not a free speech issue as that applies only to policies of government bodies. So the atheists may not have a strong case.
    One question I guess is whether an ad that merely acknowledges the existence of atheists is actually at odds with their policy. It’s not promoting any religious message in particular.

  • L.Long

    The bus company is afeared of having their most numerous customers pissed off. So I would expect to be turned away as our numbers are insignificant to the business.Even women are treated better by these religious nutjobs and the people that enable them. And ANY business can tell you to piss off because they are NOT required to give you a stage for your freedom of speech.

  • John the Drunkard

    I have this sneaking suspicion that a survey of accepted advertisements on ‘COLTS’ buses would reveal a very flexible standard…

  • Broga

    No drawing attention to people who emphasise facts and reason but a deluge of attention for people who espouse irrationality and fictions which they insist are facts.

  • 1859

    It’s almost as though the word ‘atheist’ in some parts of the world is used as an insult.
    But when you are trapped behind the mental bars of religion I guess it’s much easier to insult those on the outside who have a freedom you secretly envy.

  • Vanity Unfair
    COLTS History
    The County of Lackawanna Transit System was formed in October 1972 under the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945. COLTS was officially certified by the state as a municipal authority in November 1972.
    COLTS will not accept advertising:….
    that promote (sic) 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 quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs, or are otherwise religious in nature.
    It seems that COLTS is a local authority ‘bus service so would be under the first amendment rule separating church and state. Their advertising regulations rule out all religious advertisements so they would have to refuse this one. If COLTS had been in the habit of accepting advertisements from religious organisations that could be a source of complaint but not a reason to have this one accepted. Unless the regulation is ruled ultra vires I think this one will be lost.This argument is based on English law principles; I await corrections for USA law.