Port Authority faces suit over 'Godless' ads

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A Washington, D.C., group that sought to post ads questioning the existence of God on Port Authority buses sued the transit agency Tuesday, claiming that its free-speech rights were infringed when it was turned away.

The plaintiff, the United Coalition of Reason, successfully sued an Arkansas transit agency in 2011. The Port Authority, meanwhile, lost a case stemming from its ad decisions in 2012.

The Port Authority declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The United Coalition describes itself as a national campaign to "raise the visibility of local nontheistic groups all over America" through cooperation, websites, training and publicity campaigns.

Its complaint in U.S. District Court described an effort to place ads with the Port Authority that started in late 2011. According to the complaint, the United Coalition asked to place on buses ads that "consisted of a background of blue sky and white clouds with the following text: 'Don't believe in God? You are not alone,' and the website address of a local group."

According to the complaint, Port Authority attorney Michael Cetra rejected the proposed ad, indicating that the agency doesn't run "non-commercial" material. The United Coalition claims, though, that the agency runs numerous non-commercial ads from religious and public issue groups.

The group alleges that its rights to free expression are being violated, and demands that the Port Authority accept the ads and pay attorney fees.

The United Coalition trumpets its "Godless billboards," festooned with messages such as, "A million New Yorkers are good without God." It has been placing ads on buses nationally since 2008, according to its website.

The organization won a settlement in its 2011 case against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. There the group sought to buy around $5,200 worth of bus ads. After a judge made a preliminary ruling in favor of the organization, the authority accepted the ads and the case was later settled.

The Port Authority's refusal of a 2006 political ad by the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters resulted in a long court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. After defeats at the district court and appeals court levels, Port Authority was forced to pay a damages award of $1,889, and cover of plaintiffs' legal bills and costs totaling $344,117.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published November 26, 2013 5:18 PM

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