Atheist group sues Arkansas bus company for discrimination

June 7, 2011

UnitedCoR AR Bus ad“Are you good without God?  Millions are.”

According to a new lawsuit, though, the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) is not.

The complaint, brought by United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR), alleges that CATA denied UnitedCoR’s right to freedom of speech.

UnitedCoR, a national atheist and secular advocacy organization, claims that when it attempted to contract with CATA and its advertising agent, On the Move Advertising, Inc., to place the above slogan on city bus ad spaces, it was denied.

Actually, “denied” is not technically accurate.

Rather, CATA and OTMA changed their form advertiser contract for UnitedCoR to include some new provisions.

For example, they wanted UnitedCoR to indemnify them against any damage to the signs or buses displaying the sign, and provide a $36,000 damage deposit to protect against any such damage (despite the fact that there was no damage to buses in any of the other 36 locations the ad was run).

CATA and OTMA may have been able to make these steps appear reasonable had it not been for a series of email communications that demonstrate content-based opposition to the ads, rather than from public backlash.

Maybe CATA and OTMA saw the lawsuit coming, because the email conversations also include discussions about OTMA taking the blame off of CATA, the actual government actor here (which makes them liable for interference with free speech rights).

But any further talk about that would invariably lead into a mind-numbing discussion about whether the side of the bus is a designated public forum or nonpublic forum.

If that really interests you, read UnitedCoR’s brief for a riveting discussion on it.

However, since even I find that topic boring, I’m going to skip to something else.

Namely, to that of discrimination against atheists in general.

What I find so intriguing about this case in that context is that readers probably found the concerns about vandalism to the ads and to the buses carrying them reasonable.

Would these concerns seem so reasonable if these were Catholic ads?  Or Jewish ads?

I doubt it, because it isn’t socially acceptable to discriminate against those groups.

The same is not true for discrimination against atheists.

A 2006 sociological study on the topic soundly supports that assertion.

Why is this?

Do atheists discriminate against those who believe in a God or gods?

Do they seek the destruction of theist religions?

Do they try to force their beliefs on others?

Do they lack any moral or ethical code to guide their behavior?

The answer to all these questions is, “No, generally.”

So what is it?

To me, this discrimination seems to be based simply on atheists’ denial of the existence of a God (if anyone has another explanation, I’m all ears).

In any case, while it may be socially acceptable to discriminate against atheists, it isn’t legally acceptable (at least for the state).

Atheism is a protected “religion” under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution (as held by the Supreme Court in 1985’s Wallace v. Jaffree and 1994’s Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet).

Will social norms catch up to the law, as seems to be the goal of UnitedCoR’s ad campaign?

That’s unclear, and we probably won’t see any changes for some time.

We do know, though, that atheists probably won’t be asking for, or subsequently receiving, any help from God in their efforts.