Texas atheist group protests denial of downtown space to advertise its event

Metroplex Atheists put up a billboard to advertise an upcoming seminar after the group’s application to hang banners in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, about the event was denied. Photo courtesy of American Atheists

Aug. 18 (UPI) -- Members of Metroplex Atheists, a north Texas organization, plan to march Saturday in downtown Fort Worth while carrying banners that advertise an upcoming seminar about the dangers of Christian nationalism.

In addition to publicizing the panel discussion -- titled "Keep God Out of Our Public Schools" and scheduled for Aug. 26 at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden -- Metroplex Atheists leaders say the march's purpose is to protest the denial of the nonprofit's application to hang the banners on downtown lampposts.

The march, which is to begin at Main and East Second streets, is scheduled for 10 to 11 a.m. CDT.

Fort Worth allows nonprofit groups to rent space on the light poles for banners that promote special events. Metroplex Atheists says its application met all the requirements of the banner policy, but alleges it was turned down based on the "pure pretext" that the seminar was not of a "magnitude" to qualify.

In a court brief, the city denied it violated or infringed upon the organization's First Amendment rights. Valerie Colapret, Fort Worth communications manager, said in an email, and that the legal department does not have further comment because the city still is in litigation.

Paid for billboard

After its request to hang banners was denied, Metroplex Atheists, which advocates for separation of church and state, paid to put a billboard at Interstate 820 and the Anglin Drive exit to advertise the event.

"You may not agree with our message, but we still have a right because of the First Amendment to share our message with people, and they're saying 'but not in our city,'" said Julie Weston, a member of the organization's board of directors.

In July, Metroplex Atheists filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging Fort Worth violated the group's constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The city has permitted banners for events with a pro-religious viewpoint, such as Kenneth Copeland Ministries' Southwest Believers Convention, and for religiously affiliated organizations, including Texas Christian University, the lawsuit says.

"The Banner Forum constitutes a limited public forum under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," it adds. "As such, the city may not exclude speech on topics otherwise permitted because the city disapproves of the speaker's viewpoint."

There is no reference to the expected "magnitude" of any promoted event in the banner policy, the suit also says.

The suit seeks a declaration that the Metroplex Atheists' First Amendment rights were violated, an injunction prohibiting the exclusion of any applicant from promoting an event on the lampposts based on disagreement with the banner's message or the applicant's viewpoint, and monetary damages.

Limited public forum

The downtown banner program is a limited public forum because the city established it for the limited purpose of advertising public events in Fort Worth and are organized by nonprofit entities, according to Geoffrey Blackwell, litigation counsel for American Atheists. The seminar discussing the threats posed by Christian nationalism meets those criteria, he said.

American Atheists and Dallas law firm Glast Phillips & Murray are representing Metroplex Atheists, and the American Humanist Association is providing assistance with the case.

"We are not aware of any other instance of an organization being denied access to the program because their event was not of sufficient magnitude," Blackwell said. "In fact, we are unaware of any organization applying to participate and being denied the opportunity to do so."

The suit notes Metroplex Atheists was allowed to hang banners on the downtown lampposts to promote a 2019 educational event about the "In God We Trust" national motto. The banners for "In NO God We Trust" led to some complaints, but the city protected the group's First Amendment rights, the suit says.

Then-Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said on Twitter, "While many of us may not agree with the message, the organization did follow policies and procedures. ... We must respect freedom of speech," according to the suit.

Established criteria

The city's official statement said that if an organization meets the established criteria for purchasing the banners, it cannot discriminate or dictate the content unless it contains profanity, threats or other inappropriate images, the suit says.

Last month, Metroplex Atheists sought a preliminary injunction directing the city to display its banners promoting the Christian nationalism event while the case is pending.

The city opposed the motion and argued in a court brief that the banner program involves government, not private, speech. Even if the program constitutes a limited public forum, the denial of Metroplex Atheists' application due to the anticipated size of the event was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, the brief says.

The 2019 event hosted by the organization at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden attracted only 200 attendees, and by Metroplex Atheists' own account, even that "meager turnout" exceeded the group's expectations, the city says.

An assistant city manager had decided before he was told who or what the banner request was about that a group renting a room with a maximum occupancy of 100 people would not qualify for the program because of its likely limited impact on Fort Worth as a whole, the brief says.

Request denied

District Judge Reed O'Connor denied the injunction request, saying the group failed to show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of its claims because the banner program represents government speech and is not a limited public forum.

"The medium is used by the city to market itself, to highlight the rich cultural environment of Fort Worth and to point its citizens and visitors to events or exhibits that the city deems 'special.' To be special, an event must meet the city's stated view of whether it promotes the common interest and cultural fabric of the city," O'Connor said in an Aug. 8 opinion.

The ruling also says the policy states the director of the city's Department of Transportation and Public Works "shall have sole authority to approve banner applications (including design/content)."

"When a city's backpedaling apology on Twitter conflicts with the words of a lawfully enacted municipal policy, it is the policy that wins -- not the tweet," O'Connor said.

Metroplex Atheists is continuing with the suit.

The scheduled speakers for the seminar, slated for 1 to 5 p.m., are Bradley Onishi, a University of San Francisco faculty member and co-host of the religion and politics podcast Straight White American Jesus; Wil Jeudy, a physician and the Texas state director of American Atheists; the Rev. Katie Hays, founder-pastor of Galileo Church; and Randall Theo, president of the DFW chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Weston said if Metroplex Atheists had been allowed to hang its banners, the seminar "wouldn't be causing such a stir."

"I truly believe that Fort Worth saying we will not allow you to hang our banners in our city and us taking the actions that we did got us more publicity than anyone could have anticipated," she said.