Athiest Bus Ads Create Free Speech Debate in Iowa

August 14, 2009 - 1:21 PM
A dispute about bus advertisements seeking to publicize atheist views has touched off a free speech debate after the signs were torn down - then posted again - on the sides of Des Moines city buses.
Des Moines, Iowa (AP) - A dispute about bus advertisements seeking to publicize atheist views has touched off a free speech debate after the signs were torn down - then posted again - on the sides of Des Moines city buses.
 
The ads, sponsored by the Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers, pictured white puffy clouds against a blue sky and read: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority stripped the signs after receiving complaints, then after meeting with the atheist group, reversed course and put the ads back up.
 
The ad campaign is part of an expanding national effort by Washington D.C.-based United Coalition for Reason, which has placed ads on buses or billboards in several cities, including Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, Phoenix, New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., Denver, Boulder, Colo., Long Beach, Calif., and Moscow, Idaho.
 
The issue with the ads in Des Moines was with the word God, said Elizabeth Prusetti, chief development officer for the bus agency.
 
"We have never allowed that word in our advertising, promoting a religion," she said. "We've never used the word God in any advertising to maintain some autonomy. We've had churches advertise but it's been for their church and not a belief."
 
Lilly Kryuchkov, spokeswoman for Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers, said the group was surprised by the bus agency's decision and believed the group's right to free speech was being trampled.
 
"We were not trying to offend anybody," Kryuckov said. "We were just trying to reach out to people like us who don't believe in God and we were surprised and disappointed that DART pulled the ads."
 
The United Coalition of Reason, which works to raise the visibility of nontheists and to improve the way they are perceived by average Americans, said the ad campaign is fueled in part by the prevalence of mainstream discussion of religious beliefs. Fred Edwords, the spokesman for United Coalition of Reason, said the environment in the country has begun to shift, in part because of President Barack Obama's acknowledgment of nonreligious people during his inaugural address, when he said "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and nonbelievers."
 
"We're in the right moment right now where we're motivated to speak out, and we have the opportunity and enough of a level of acceptance that we're willing to do so," Edwords said. "We aren't the pariahs we once were."
 
Prusetti said a breakdown in communication within the bus agency led to the ads being put on 20 buses by mistake. The agency's general manager and the chairwoman of the agency's commission determined that the signs were inappropriate, she said, and that the message was not communicated to the maintenance department that puts the signs on the buses. The mixup, not complaints from citizens, led to the removal of the ads, she said.
 
The agency has since decided its advertising policy was outdated, and is changing it to better align with other policies regarding civil rights, the state's obscenity and profanity laws and the diversity of the community, said Brad Miller, the agency's general manager. Prusetti said agency did not specifically address religion in its old advertising policy and that the decision not to have the word God appear in ads has just been continued on over the years. Prusetti said the word God will be allowed under the new advertising policy.
 
"By honoring the freedoms protected through our shared civil liberties, DART ... will be in the position of displaying messages and images that may be controversial or uncomfortable to some, but legal and protected by civil rights," Miller said.
 
The American Civil Liberties of Iowa has asked to see the updated policy. Randall Wilson, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said there have been numerous cases in which bus agencies have lost lawsuits over decisions against displaying certain types of advertising. He cited a 1994 case against the Massachusetts State Transportation Authority and a decision not to display AIDS awareness advertisements. In 2004, a court ruled against a Washington, D.C., transit agency that decided not to accept marijuana law reform ads.
 
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Associated Press Writer Luke Meredith contributed to this report.