The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.
Since 2012, the NEPA Freethought Society has tried unsuccessfully to run various ads on COLTS buses. The rejected ads say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website.
COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave the agency discretion to reject ads it deemed "controversial" or that would spark debate or discussion of public issues. In commenting on the rejection, COLTS’ solicitors said the agency did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least 10 years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, the agency never rejected a single ad.
In September 2013, the agency again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some riders, causing the agency to lose money. Eight days after rejecting the ad, COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity” or address religion.
In 2014, COLTS finally accepted a version of the NEPA Freethought Society’s ad after it removed the word “atheists.” According to the complaint, COLTS’ decision to ban all religious ads and begin enforcing its advertising policy was motivated by its dislike for NEPA Freethought Society’s beliefs.