Responding to criticism of church/state lawsuits

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Brief thoughts concerning criticism of church/state lawsuits…

I was recently involved in a discussion with a humanist who portrayed lawsuits that organizations advocating for the separation of government and religion file as heavy-handed and antagonistic toward religious individuals. I’ll explain that lawsuits are often filed as a last resort and that religious individuals should not feel attacked.

I have worked alongside various legal teams on numerous church/state separation issues in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area. In each situation, they did not immediately file a lawsuit, but rather first sought to discover facts about an issue, speak with government officials, and work toward a resolution without need for a lawsuit. Many situations were resolved without legal action as government officials acknowledged a problem and made amends so that future violations would not happen. Lawsuits are filed as a final option when other means are exhausted.

My activism for the separation of religion and government largely began in 2009 when I challenged a prominent nativity scene featured on a county courthouse lawn. I worked alongside the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State who corresponded with county officials to address this religious display which, rather than being inclusive, prominently featured a Christian viewpoint. The nativity and other decorations including a non-prominently placed menorah were removed and later replaced with a more inclusive display.

During this process, I received a good deal of vitriol from religious individuals. Although I was interviewed in various media outlets including television news and newspapers offering my desire for government neutrality on matters of religion, people were outraged claiming that their rights were being violated – unwilling to depart from a narrative of Christians being ‘under attack’ which was voiced by religious individuals including pastors in the area.421499_10150513069124327_502483225_n

Although there was no lawsuit in the case of the nativity scene and no need for legal action [because county officials remedied the issue by placing a more inclusive display], people falsely spread the lie that legal action occurred and one county official even claimed that since the county couldn’t afford a court challenge the nativity scene was initially removed although, again, no court challenge was necessary. Perhaps he was simply saving face, pandering, rather than admitting a violation had occurred…

Lawsuits are filed as a result of government entanglement with religion only when government officials refuse to remedy a violation following input from various organizations. Advocating for government neutrality on matters of religion isn’t attacking or antagonizing religious individuals, but is instead a stance looking for fairness. At the end of the day, some religious individuals will continue to frame lawsuits as persecution of religious individuals, but this simply isn’t the case. Religious believers can practice religion, but we secularists simply want governments out of that equation.

Legal response to COLTS’ motion to dismiss

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More legal documents have been released concerning ACLU’s free speech lawsuit launched in April 2015 against County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS).

From April: The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today 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.

Earlier in July 2015, COLTS filed a motion to dismiss the April 2015 lawsuit.

Yesterday — July 27, 2015 — a response to the motion to dismiss has been issued. See the document included below:

2015-07-27 Opposition to COLTS MTD as filed

COLTS files motion to dismiss lawsuit

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The County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) has filed a motion to dismiss the April 2015 lawsuit previously mentioned on this page.

From April:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today 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.

See below documents concerning the motion to dismiss. I offer no commentary at this time. My legal team should soon offer a response which shall be linked on this website.

2015-06-25 COLTS brief ISO motion to dismiss (1)

2015-06-25 COLTS motion to dismiss (1)

ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

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ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2015

CONTACT: Sara Mullen, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513 x122, smullen@aclupa.org

PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today 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 simply say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website. COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave COLTS 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 that COLTS did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least ten years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, COLTS never rejected a single ad. COLTS has run ads from religious organizations, a political candidate, and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. COLTS also displayed the message “God Bless America” on the front of one bus for years.

In September 2013, COLTS again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders, causing COLTS 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.”

“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” said Justin Vacula, organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”

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.

“The First Amendment means that government officials can’t censor speech just because it’s unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”

The NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Theresa E. Loscalzo, Stephen J. Shapiro, and Monica Clarke Platt of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/COLTS

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Media:

Friendly Atheist relinked at RichardDawkins.net

Associated Press story featured on CNBCPhilly.com, The Washington Times, Reading Eagle, and other sources

The Times Leader (updated since original posting)

Scranton Times-Tribune (updated since original posting)

The LuLac Political Letter

Religion Clause

The Christian Post

Dispatches From The Culture Wars [archived screenshot]

Background Probability

The Washington Post

Christian News

Metro