- (Photo: Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason)
Members of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason saw signs promoting the group's atheistic message go up on 18 buses in Little Rock Sunday following a court battle that lasted for several months.
On June 1, the United Coalition of Reason filed a federal lawsuit against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and On the Move Advertising for imposing unfair rules on the Arkansas branch of the organization when it wanted to run bus ads that read, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, accused the transit authority and the advertising agency of violating the coalition's First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Arkansas News reported that during an August court hearing, Betty Wineland, executive director of CATA, and Lydia Robertson, co-owner of On the Move, said they were concerned that some people might resort to vandalism if they didn't like the ad's message, as had happened in other cities.
The complaint that was filed said Robertson told the coalition via email that “in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”
They had also been asked to provide a damage deposit in the amount of $36,000, a charge other groups that wanted to advertise never had to pay, just in case someone did vandalize one of the buses or signs.
The federal judge in the case ruled that the transit authority had to post the signs, but could require a lesser deposit of $15,000.
The four-week advertising campaign is part of a nationwide effort by the United CoR to reach out to other atheists through the use of advertisements like bus signs and billboards.
"The point of our ongoing nationwide awareness campaign is to reach out to the millions of atheists and agnostics living in the United States," said Fred Edwords, national director of the coalition. "Such nontheists sometimes don't realize there's a community for them because they're inundated with religious messages at every turn. So our efforts serve as a beacon and let them know they aren't alone."
LeeWood Thomas, a spokesperson for the Central Arkansas CoR, said his group should receive the same treatment any other group would receive.
"It's only fair that, when religious groups are allowed to advertise on Little Rock buses, atheist and agnostic groups be allowed to advertise as well," Thomas said. "The world needs to know that people can be decent human beings without believing in a god or gods."
As of Tuesday, Arkansas News reported that there were no incidents of vandalism to the buses, which have displayed the advertisements since Sunday.
Ray Higgins, coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, offered his thoughts on the issue to the The Christian Post via email on Wednesday.
“The right and freedom for atheists and religious people to advertise publicly is at the heart of what true religious liberty meant for our nation’s founders and how that principle is embodied in the First Amendment,” Higgins wrote.
He also said he was unaware if vandalism was a real threat to the buses, but says it would be an “embarrassment” for Christians to be involved in any such activity.
“Like any other advertising. You take it or leave it. You talk about it or ignore it. You laugh at it or agree with it. It makes you think or it turns you off. But you don’t hate on people or damage property.”