A group of atheists in northeastern Pennsylvania has won the right to display ads in the mass transit system of Lackawanna County.

The group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society (NEPA), sued the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) in 2012 after officials at the system rejected a number of ads designed to run inside county buses.

The ad contained the word “Atheists” on a blue background and listed the websites for Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society and American Atheists. Justin Vacula, who works with the Pennsylvania group, said the ad was deliberately designed to be low-key.

COLTS rejected the ad nonetheless, calling it “controversial.”

“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,” COLTS solicitor Tim Hinton told WNEP-TV in Moosic, Pa.

Vacula came back with a differently designed ad, which COLTS officials likewise rejected. The COLTS board then unanimously passed a policy stating that it would not accept any ads promoting the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being.

But as blogger Hemant Mehta pointed out, COLTS had a long history of accepting ads from religious groups, including St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, the Christian Women’s Devotional Alliance and even “Old Forge Times,” a blog that contained links to antisemitic and white supremacist websites.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, NEPA filed a lawsuit. A federal court in July 2018 sided with COLTS, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling on appeal in the case Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System.

“COLTS prohibits Freethought’s statement of organizational identity just because of that statement’s atheistic character,” observed the court in the 2-1 ruling. “For that reason, we hold that the 2013 policy facially discriminates against atheistic and religious viewpoints on all of the many topics permitted in the forum.”

Molly Tack-Hooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement, “This ruling is an important acknowledgment that censoring potentially controversial speech in order to avoid possible disruption is constitutionally suspect. The core purpose of the First Amendment is to protect minority views like those of atheists in northeastern Pennsylvania. The government can’t restrict speech just because some people might react badly to it.”

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