Athiest Group Sues CATA over Bus Ads

KARK Channel 4 News (Video)

A federal lawsuit was filed today against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) and its advertising agent, On the Move Advertising, for discrimination in the process to run $5,260 worth of bus ads aimed at attracting local atheists and agnostics. The queen-sized ads, to be placed on the sides of 18 buses serving Riverfest, would have said: "Are you good without God? Millions are." A blue sky with clouds was to be the background behind the words.

The complaint and a motion for a preliminary injunction were filed this morning at the U.S. District Court in Little Rock by the United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR). UnitedCoR is a national organization, headquartered in Washington DC, which focuses on organizing local atheist and agnostic groups into coalitions and funding their bus and billboard ad campaigns.

CATA declined an on-camera interview with KARK 4 today, but an attorney for the transit authority says they are disappointed by the suit. They say negotiations were on-going with the United Coalition of Reason, and that they had offered only slight variances to their contract because of a potential for vandalism. They call the lawsuit a publicity stunt.

The bus ads were to launch the new Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason (Central Arkansas CoR), a collection of 10 area atheist and agnostic groups. The ads would have directed inquirers to the Central Arkansas CoR website (click here), inviting them to consider joining any of the groups in the coalition. But after negotiations with On the Move Advertising and CATA failed in March and couldn’t be revived afterwards, UnitedCoR opted to pursue legal action.

UnitedCoR filed a brief in support of its motion. In the brief, UnitedCoR alleges that CATA and On the Move violated UnitedCoR’s free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

UnitedCoR asserts that the First Amendment prohibits CATA, as a governmental entity, from using its disfavor of the nontheistic message of UnitedCoR’s ads as a reason for refusing to run them on its buses. UnitedCoR argues that CATA also may not impose burdensome requirements, such as a damage deposit, on speech it labels "controversial." Such acts, the legal brief states, amount to
unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination against UnitedCoR’s speech.

Little Rock previously encountered the issue of government discrimination against nontheists in 2009 when the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, one of the groups now part of Central Arkansas CoR, won a lawsuit allowing its nontheistic winter holiday display to appear near a Christian crche on state capitol grounds.

"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," declared LeeWood Thomas of Central Arkansas CoR. "The world needs to know that people can be decent human beings without believing in a god or gods."

Such bus ads, as well as billboards, have been appearing all over the United States since 2008. UnitedCoR funded a billboard and bus ad campaign in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2010. The organization has also run campaigns in Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia.

"The point of our ongoing nationwide awareness campaign is to reach out to the millions of atheists and agnostics living in the United States," explained Fred Edwords, national director of UnitedCoR. "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."