Iowa atheists have amazing powers

to make other people act like idiots.

Consider the fallout from last week's ad campaign by Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers.

First, lots of religious people complained to the Des Moines Area Regional Transit authority about ads that went up on some buses on August 1. The ads read, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

Here's some free advice from a member of a small religious minority: the world doesn't end because some people don't share your spiritual worldview. If your faith is strong and your God is big, why are you so worried about a few signs on buses? You don't seem offended by the casino ads that are all over town and the DART system.

By the way, the controversy stirred up by your complaints brought the atheists' message to tens of thousands of Iowans who never would have heard of the group or seen their ads. The story generated several reports in newspapers, on local television and Radio Iowa.

Next in line to act stupid were DART officials, who pulled down the ads after three days, claiming the signs hadn't been properly approved. The Des Moines Register's editorial board states the obvious:

The transit authority reserves the right to reject offensive ads on grounds of taste, obscenity and accuracy measures. That's reasonable, but the atheist ad met those standards. Rejecting advertising based simply on the content of the message, especially when the message involves religion, triggers legal questions. DART is wholly owned and operated by Polk County and the 19 communities it serves, and, as such, is an arm of the government. Although the courts have given advertising less First Amendment protection than other speech, the government still must be careful in arbitrarily censoring the content of advertising that expresses a viewpoint.

DART officials agreed on August 7 to put the ads back up, after failing to persuade the atheist group to alter the content. According to the Des Moines Register, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa

had asked DART to provide public records of all internal DART correspondence while processing the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers advertisement, as well as a formal letter from DART explaining the reasons for its decision on the ad.

All of the controversy and potential legal problems could have been avoided if DART employees had told angry complainers, "We don't endorse the political or religious views of our advertisers. If you would be interested in promoting your own religious beliefs, I'd be happy to connect you with our sales department."

Governor Chet Culver added his two cents on Thursday:

"I was disturbed the advertisement, I can understand why other Iowans were also disturbed by the message that it sent. But, we'll see how it unfolds," Culver says. Culver would not say whether he felt the atheist group had a free speech right to have the messages on buses.

Culver says: "I think it's a great question for the attorney general and for legal scholars to kind of sort through that, that balancing act between free speech and the type of message that is being sent. But I do again understand that people were actually not wanting to get on the bus, they were so disturbed by the message that was being sent."

So former high school government teacher Culver isn't sure whether atheists have free speech rights. He punts that question to Attorney General Tom Miller and "legal scholars."  

If the governor thinks conservatives will be impressed that he is "disturbed" by atheist ads, he is mistaken. Conservatives will only ridicule his pandering to religious groups.

The Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers stated the obvious in an open letter:

Governor Culver, the members of IAF are your constituents just as much as any Iowa member of a Christian church or any other religious group. We are also citizens of this state and this country and, therefore, entitled to the same constitutional rights to free speech no matter what religion we belong or don't belong to.

As our highest-ranking elected official, you don't have to agree with all your constituents or like the message that we chose to sponsor. However, we expect our governor to set an example of respect for diversity and tolerance of others' beliefs and ideas in this state.

When journalists asked Culver about the bus ads, the correct answer was, "I don't agree with them, but that's free speech for you." Or, "I see lots of ads I disagree with--that's life." Or, lacking the courage to deliver that message, "No comment."

  • My perspective

    Full disclosure time: I'm a college student, and the job that keeps me a "poor college student" instead of a "flat broke college student" is driving a bus for UI Cambus.

    We don't have ads on the outside of the buses, like DART, but we do have a lot of ad space inside the bus. I've never seen an ad from this group, or anything with a similar message. I have seen ads from religious groups and churches, and I have seen ads from groups like Planned Parenthood (they have a very cute one up now with rabbits on it) and groups like the Darwin Day folks. Sometimes they run straight across the aisle from one another or even side by side.

    As far as I know, we don't reject ads very often--although I'm not really in on the approval process. The last one I can remember (I think) was a pro-life group ad that got rejected as too graphic. (I don't think I need to say more.) They do make it very clear from the get go that they do have the power to approve or reject any ad, or to cancel any ad before its time is up.

    Had the ad come through us, I'm not really sure what would have happened. I think it would have been approved, but beyond that I'm not sure. I don't envy DART's position. It has to be taxing their resources to take all the angry phone calls and e-mails. And it's not their place to have to fight these kinds of battles.

    And I think Gov. Culver was on the right track as far as one thing goes. It does seem to be a very tricky free speech case. DART (and Cambus, for that matter) are part of the government, but at the same time, they have the right to choose to run or not run or remove any ad they see fit. It's not as clear cut as a policeman booting a speaker off of a street corner.

    • this must be a first

      I'm tougher on Culver than American007.

      To my mind it's not a difficult question. DART are not required to accept any ad, but if they run ads from religious groups routinely and yank this ad solely because religious people complain, that's a free speech problem.

      Also, the slogan in this ad has been run in cities across the country, with no problems. It's clearly not obscene or inciting violence or even "proselytizing" to get believers to become atheists.  

      • It is a first!

        I think this might be one of the few instances where I'm cutting Culver some serious slack!

        I look at it like this. DART's mission is to get people from Point A to Point B on a mass scale every day. If this ad started getting in the way of that (all the phone calls clogging up the lines, all the "I don't want to ride that bus stuff", so on and so on) then the ad had to go.  

        Where Culver went wrong was in expressing his personal opinion on the subject (even though it may be a majority opinion) when he should have just shut up about it. After all, it's not his job to make religious judgments. He is right, though, about it being a very tricky question.

        Also, the slogans may be different, but ads by atheist groups have become issues in other places. Bloomington, Indiana had a very similar case come up earlier this year.

    • forgot to mention

      that the original bus ad from England (photo here) was much more "in your face": "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

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