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Dueling bus ads advance free speech

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Charles C. Haynes
August 29, 2009

Atheists are on the bus in Des Moines, Iowa—and that’s good news for freedom of speech in America.


Earlier this month, transit-authority officials in Des Moines removed bus advertisements paid for by Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers after receiving calls from people offended by the message: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”


But now the controversial signs are back on the sides of 20 buses, thanks to a nudge from the American Civil Liberties Union.


Not only has the city dodged an unwinnable and costly lawsuit, but the outcome also appears to have benefited both sides. According to the Des Moines Register, membership in the atheist group has spiked and the transit authority is getting calls from potential new advertisers.


To their credit, some Des Moines clergy have spoken out in support of the right of atheists to advertise on city buses. As a Lutheran pastor explained to a local television reporter, people should have “environments where they can seek the truth about whether or not there is a God.”


Meanwhile, in Chicago, one church decided to fight ad with ad. Earlier this year, atheists ran posters on Chicago buses stating, “In the beginning, man created God.” This month the New Life Covenant Church has responded with “God is still God whether you believe it or not—just believe.”


Other cities haven’t been as receptive as Chicago to the marketplace of ideas. Transit officials in Bloomington, Ind., initially barred “You can be good without God” ads produced by the Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign. But after the ACLU filed a lawsuit, the city agreed last month to let the atheists buy space on as many buses as they chose.


When I first heard about the bus campaign, dueling ads for and against the existence of God struck me as an “only in America” phenomenon. But as it happens, the current tit for tat started in the United Kingdom.


In 2008, a Christian group placed ads on buses in London and elsewhere with quotations from Christian Scripture. What really riled nonbelievers, however, was the Web site mentioned in the ads that informs nonbelievers that they will “spend all eternity in torment in hell” unless they accept Christ.


Not to be outdone, British atheists and humanists pushed back earlier this year with bus ads proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”


The bus campaign quickly jumped the pond, landing on 20 Manhattan buses with the message, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral and ethical person.” Similar ads have now appeared in other American cities and towns, not to mention Canada, Germany, Finland, Italy and other countries.


Beyond the theological debate, the legal victories for the atheist ads in places such as Bloomington and Des Moines advance the cause of free speech. It does God no favors when government officials take sides in religion, allowing churches to advertise on buses, for example, while censoring atheist groups out of fear of offending people.


The prospect of competing on a level playing field—which is mandated by the First Amendment in principle, but rarely lived up to in practice—frightens and angers some religious leaders. One pastor from Bloomington recently appeared on Fox News to denounce the atheist ads as a “mockery” of free speech.


Fortunately, other ministers understand what’s at stake. When asked by a reporter about the atheist ads in his town, the Rev. Steve Beeman of the Des Moines First Assembly of God said it all: “People died for that kind of free speech, and we don’t want to deny that.”


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@fre edomforum.org.

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