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'Bible' reference banned in ads on Port Authority buses

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 11:38 p.m.

The Bible isn't welcome on Port Authority bus ads, a policy that's “surprising and disappointing” to a Beaver County man seeking to sell his DVDs about the New Testament.

James Fitzgerald, who lives in Ambridge and owns WatchWord productions, ultimately bought 200 bus ads that don't include religious references or show pictures of the Bible or use the word “Bible.” The ad campaign is intended to promote his 10-DVD set.

The prohibition included the vanity phone number 1-800-HolyBible. Instead, Fitzgerald used just the digits of the phone number on an ad that promotes “Love. Joy. Hope.” and includes a link to his website.

“I'm not promoting religion. I'm selling a product we created and produced in Pittsburgh,” Fitzgerald said. “Not to be able to use the word ‘Bible' is kind of newsworthy.”

Fitzgerald ran up against Port Authority's policy of not allowing ads that promote the existence or nonexistence of a supreme deity or ads that are religious. The policy is one of 13 categories not permitted in ads, including political and cigarette ads.

“It's a pretty standard policy for a transit agency,” Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said. “It's a policy we put in place a couple of years ago following an ACLU lawsuit. We have to have some standards. Otherwise, ads could end up (being) offensive in any number of ways. We did work with him to find a way to still advertise. We didn't slam the door on him.”

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said courts have upheld ad refusals as long as they are consistently enforced.

“The government is permitted a certain amount of content discrimination but not viewpoint discrimination,” Ledewitz said. “In other words, you can say no political ads, but you can't say no Democrats.”

The policy sparked one lawsuit in November from an atheist group that was denied the opportunity to run ads on buses. The United Coalition of Reason Inc., a national organization that helps local atheist, agnostic and other nontheist groups, said the authority rejected an ad that said, “Don't believe in God? You are not alone,” and included the website of a local affiliate.

Ritchie said they were rejected under the same policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters Education Fund successfully sued the authority in 2006 for refusing, on similar grounds, to run an ad informing convicted felons of their voting rights.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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