Atheist Group Pleads Freedom of Speech Violations After Rejected Bus Ad

An atheist group looking to plaster city buses in the County of Lackawanna, Pa., with posters promoting atheism has seen its plea rejected, and is now arguing that its rights to freedom of speech are being denied.

The NEPA Freethought Society was hoping to advertise on 10 County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) buses with banners that promoted its website and read "Atheism" in big white letters, but the COLTS Board of Directors rejected its appeal, citing that such an ad would violate an established policy.

COLTS does not allow religious ads or banners raising debate and discussion on public issues, and only allows car companies and consumer products to advertise on its buses.

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"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.

Justin Vacula, a student from Marywood University, was the only representative of the NEPA Freethought Society to attend the COLTS Board of Directors meeting.

"The whole point was to be as inoffensive as possible, just to advertise our organization and reach out to the public at large in Lackawanna County and Northeastern Pennsylvania," Vacula explained to the board.

Hinton, however, repeated: "We don't accept ads promoting any certain religion or religion in general, so we don't want to accept an ad attacking religion."

As a result of the transit board's decision, NEPA is considering teaming up with the bigger national group, American Atheists, to file a lawsuit against COLTS, because the groups feel the policy violates its right of freedom of speech.

"Well, there's another question that the constituted policy is permissible to begin with, as if the argument that something can't be a discussion of public issues is permissible enough to reject ads," Vacula said in an interview with 16 WNEP.

The threat of a lawsuit is not of great concern to COLTS, 16 WNEP reports, as board members believe their advertising policy will hold up in court.

American Atheists have been more successful in putting up anti-religion banners on the side of highways and tunnels, although it has met opposition in such attempts as well. Last month, it planned to unveil two new billboards in New York and New Jersey that target Muslims and Jews, urging them to reject the "myths" that they follow. While the Muslim ad went up, the Jewish one was halted at the last minute when the owner of the site refused to display it.

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