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Road to Perdition 

A free-speech suit raises thorny questions for Port Authority

Ordinarily, a Port Authority bus would seem like the perfect place for atheists to advertise. If you want proof that we live in a Godless universe, after all, you need only climb aboard a 51-Carrick at rush hour.

But last month, the United Coalition of Reason sued the Port Authority in federal court, alleging the agency had violated the group'sfree-speech rights by rejecting an ad targeting religious skeptics.

The Coalition is an unholy alliance — literally — of local doubters banded together under the auspices of a national organization. Nationwide, the Coalition has sought to raise the visibility of non-religious Americans with ads reading, "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."

"It's a campaign to get the word out that there are atheists and agnostics," says Stephen Hirtle, a local Coalition spokesman. "There's no attempt to convert anyone. It doesn't say, ‘We hate God.'"

According to the lawsuit, discussions over the ad began two years ago. During that time, the Port Authority lost another free-speech case, in which the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged an earlier policy that barred ads from non-commercial advertisers. Stung by the loss, the agency agreed to allow such spots, but its new policy still bars ads "that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity ... or are otherwise religious in nature."

"We don't meet the new policy and we don't meet the old policy, because they aren't following it in either case," Hirtle says. "If you are a church, you have a free ticket to anywhere. But if you're a secular atheist, there's no place for you."

You can see why he feels that way. Even as the Coalition filed its suit, for example, state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth) was making headlines with legislation requiring the motto "In God We Trust" be posted in public schools. The Port Authority's record in these fights, meanwhile, doesn't inspire confidence. "In heaven's name, the agency needs a more realistic ad policy" a Dec. 1 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial argued.

And because the Port Authority doesn't comment on pending litigation, it falls to me to play Devil's advocate. (Or God's —theology gets a little confused in these cases.)

For starters, ACLU attorney Sara Rose says the new policy "is better than the old one because it allows for more non-commercial ads." And unless you can prove a double standard at work, courts typically "give agencies the benefit of the doubt." (The ACLU is not involved in the current lawsuit.)

The Coalition's complaint includes photographs of ads it says the Port Authority has accepted. Perhaps the most troubling is a poster featuring a quote from Einstein: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

But Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie says that poster "is not a Port Authority ad": The bus shelter it was posted on, he says, belongs to Lamar Advertising.

Other ads feature events like food festivals and fish fries; Hirtle asks "How is a Lenten dinner not a matter of religious belief?" But the authority arguably would risk another lawsuit if it rejected ads for a church-sponsored event while accepting those ads from, say, a secular rib festival.

Consistency can cut both ways. In fact, if the Coalition wins the right to proclaim its philosophy on buses, church groups might demand the same opportunity. A win for atheists, perversely, could result in even more overtly religious ads. (Hirtle acknowledges that possibility, but says, "We already see Christian messages all the time, so we're willing to risk a few more to get our own message out.")

Personally, I'd be OK with ads from atheists and believers, especially if they paid for more transit service on the Sabbath. Anyway, the Port Authority already promotes other kinds of godlessness. Entire buses have been sheathed in beer ads, and some light-rail vehicles practically resemble slots parlors.

Rose explains that under a 1974 US Supreme Court decision, agencies can treat commercial and non-commercial messages differently — and "any entity that wants to avoid controversial advertising has relied on that distinction."

Ordinarily, advertising gets less government protection than other forms of speech. But as courts wrestle over when and where to debate the existence of God, Pittsburgh's buses will roll by ... proclaiming the glory of Mammon.

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