by Max Brantley
It would appear the Central Arkansas Transit Authority is going to fight to the death against the atheists. I hope they lose in federal court and pay still more money they can ill afford to lose for this offense to the First Amendment.
You remember that the United Coalition of Reason wanted to put ads on local buses — as they'd done in dozens of other markets — with this message: "Are you good without God? Millions are." CATA's lawyer now calls this benign statement "intentionally inflammatory."
The bus company's ad agent, Lydia Robertson, wanted no part of this advertising, as her emails made clear. Between her pugnacious attorney and a confiscatory damage deposit of $35,000, she did all she could do to discourage the ads. Robertson also badly overstated, according to the account of CATA director Betty Wineland, the handful of incidents involving these ads when they ran in other cities. A couple were defaced with markers and such. CATA's lawyer terms this a "history of terrorism." Which is about like saying bathroom graffiti is terrorism.
Wineland insists the bus company is open to the advertising. That stretches the truth. The latest development is a letter from the bus company's lawyer, Jess Sweere. Oh, sure, the bus company will run the ad. And without a damage deposit. BUT .... they insist on indemnification against damage and require proof of liability insurance (a non-refundable damage deposit by another name). As you can see from e-mails here, the atheists contend the bus company doesn't burden other advertisers with these expensive conditions. I have asked Wineland to demonstrate otherwise. She said the ad agency last week offered a contract identical to those offered others. But the legal coordinator for the bus ad campaign says he's received nothing new and Wineland later said that, while work on a new contract continued, it had not been submitted yet. If financial conditions were applied only to the atheists' ad, it is discrimination based on religious content. Sweere said he would continue to fight the lawsuit (and also negotiate, but CATA's negotiations to date have been primarily of the you-give-we-take variety). For a flavor of negotiations from Robertson's end, try this.
CATA's legal fees are going to exceed any expenses the bus company likely would have faced from the ads. But: you can't be sure that the foot-dragging and discrimination the bus company has engaged in because of pressure, real or perceived, from good Christians won't inspire some nutcase to action thanks to all the publicity. This all could have been avoided — and probably passed without notice — if CATA had simply taken the money and run the damn ads.
UPDATE: I've continued to talk with Betty Wineland and CATA's attorney, Sweere. They say talks with the atheists' local lawyer have continued on a settlement of the issue and they've asked the advertisers what an acceptable set of contract terms would be. Sweere said he remained hopeful.