Civil Rights

"Don't Believe in God?" The Iowa Bus Ad Conflict

Pictures of clouds set against a blue sky were placed on buses and signs across Iowa with the words, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." The ads have raised issues about free speech and created controversy among several groups.

"God" On Buses

After 20 buses features these ads, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) removed the signs, claiming that the word "God" on a bus ad is not allowed. "We have never allowed that word in our advertising, promoting a religion," said Elizabeth Prusetti, chief development officer for the bus agency. "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."1 She explained that the ads ran due to an internal mix up.

DART then determined the ads were inappropriate and removed them. Afterwards however, the transit authority decided its advertising policy was outdated and reinstated the ads.

Who Is behind These Ads?

The ads were purchased by the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers. Their campaign is part of a national effort by the United Coalition for Reason to raise the visibility of local groups in the community of reason and nonbelievers. Similar bus ads and billboards have run in Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, New Orleans, Charleston (S.C.), Philadelphia, Kansas City (Mo.), Denver, Boulder, Long Beach (Calif.) and Moscow (Idaho).

What Is the Controversy behind These Ads?

When the bus ads were removed, the Atheist and Freethinkers group was surprised and members believed their rights to free speech were violated. "We were not trying to offend anybody," Lilly Kryuchkov, spokeswoman for Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers 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."2

The agency's general manager and the chairwoman of the agency's commission determined that the signs were inappropriate but the message was not communicated to the maintenance department that puts the signs on the buses. The mix-up led to the removal of the ads rather than complaints from citizens.

New Policy

DART has since decided its advertising policy was outdated and changed it to better align with other policies regarding civil rights, the State's obscenity and profanity laws and the diversity of the community. The word God is permitted 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,"3 said Brad Miller, DART's general manager.

After all, as acknowledged by President Barack Obama's during his inaugural address, when he said "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and nonbelievers."4

London Bus Ads War

The dispute is similar to the competing bus ads controversy that took place last winter in London. Initially, bus ads advertised a Christian Web site, JesusSaid.org. After visiting that site and learning that she was going to burn for all eternity, comedy writer Ariane Sherine started a counter-campaign and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Atheist Bus Campaign. The campaign then placed ads on 800 buses across Britain claiming, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The atheist bus ad drew about 100 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, but the group took no action.

These ads were followed by bible societies and churches advertising their views. The Trinitarian Bible Society began running its own bus campaign, advertising that "the fool hath said in his heart there is no God." The Christian Party ran ads which read, "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life." The Russian Orthodox Church also pitched their view, saying, "There is a God, BELIEVE. Don't worry and enjoy your life."

Whether a similar religious advertisement campaign will occur in America remains to be seen.

Sources

1Associated Press, Atheist Bus Ads Spark Free-speech Debate in Iowa, First Amendment Center, Aug. 19, 2009, available at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/news.aspx?id=21956, accessed Oct. 13, 2009. 2Id. 3Id. 4Id.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What are the rights of religious groups or those who wish to publicize a religious message? Can someone refuse to accept an advertisement based on the message? Does is matter if a public or private entity is involved?
  • How do Constitutional rights come into play when there's crossover between something secular and religious, for example a holiday? If a school district doesn't hold class on a Christian religious holiday, must it treat other religious holidays the same?
  • Can a business refuse to deal with a potential customer or client based on religion? Does it matter if the business is public or private?
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