- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Pennsylvania transit system permitted churches to advertise on the sides of its buses but then refused to allow a group that doesn’t believe in God to place an ad containing the word “atheists,” fearing it would offend riders, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The County of Lackawanna Transit System repeatedly rejected the ads sought by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, telling the group it doesn’t permit advertising space to be used as a forum for public debate. The transit system also told the group its ad might alienate riders and hurt revenue, according to the lawsuit, filed in Scranton.

The transit system allowed several churches - as well as a political candidate and a blog that linked to anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial and white supremacist websites - to advertise before the Freethought Society first tried placing its ad in 2012, the suit said.

“The First Amendment means that government officials can’t censor speech just because it’s unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which sued on the atheist group’s behalf. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”

An attorney for the transit system was reviewing the complaint and had no immediate comment.

After rejecting the Freethought Society’s ads, the transit agency changed its advertising policy to ban all religious advertising, a decision “motivated by its disagreement with, and distaste for, the viewpoint of one would-be advertiser: NEPA Freethought Society,” the suit said.

The group wants a judge to force the transit system to run the “atheists” ad and prevent it from enforcing the 2-year-old ban on religious advertising.

Tuesday’s legal action marks the latest First Amendment flare-up over the content of bus ads.

In Philadelphia, a pro-Israel group recently won the right to run provocative ads on the sides of buses, including one that features a 1941 photograph of Adolf Hitler with a former Arab leader and the tagline, “Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran.”

In Pittsburgh, the Washington, D.C.-based United Coalition of Reason sued the city’s transit agency, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, for refusing to run an ad that said, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” The Port Authority paid $20,000 plus costs and attorneys’ fees to settle the suit but did not admit wrongdoing.

Similar disputes over bus ads that question the existence of God have cropped up in several other states, including Texas, Wisconsin, Iowa and Arkansas.

The Scranton lawsuit said the transit system eventually accepted an ad from the Freethought Society that mentioned only its name and website. The ad ran on a bus last October.

The group said it wasn’t sufficient.

“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” Justin Vacula, the group’s organizer, said in a statement distributed by the ACLU. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”

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