Monday, April 19, 2010

A million New Yorkers are good without religious advertisements. Are You?

After a semester long of discussion about the first amendment and the various situations in which its been invoked to decide landmark cases, I think it’s interesting to take a look back at an article from a few months ago that many of us may at the time would have brushed off without thinking about the possible implications. Back in October a group of eight various atheist organizations purchased a month long campaign that will place their posters through a dozen different subway stations in Manhattan, in an attempt to foster their message: “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?” Apparently the reason for choosing Manhattan as the location for this campaign is due to the city’s extremely busy nature, and wide spread usage of public transportation. The United Coalition of Reason, a national organization that advocates atheist ideas, is among one of the groups involved in this new campaign to buy ad space from the Metro Transit Authority. While on the surface this may seem harmless, and fully in line with advertising guidelines and constitutional legality, does this make anybody besides me a little uneasy?

There are numerous contexts to argue from as to why implementing these ads is such a problem, but outside of a legal standpoint mainly two. To begin with, why is the MTA, an organization run and funded by New York State with tax payer dollars, promoting a religious campaign? While atheism isn’t exactly a religion, it’s actually quite the opposite, the same logic would apply to any religious billboard, as we know from class religion and non religion must be treated equally, and as such the MTA endorses both similarly in their advertising guidelines. I think while not blatant; the state of New York is in fact endorsing religion, at least on some level. If the board read “A million New Yorkers are good with Jesus. Are you?” I can’t help but feel that people would undoubtedly have a problem with this. In fact many of the atheist groups hope that the billboards “encourage talking and thinking about religion and morality,” according to the article. If this is the purpose of the advertisement, then why is the MTA, which is funded by the government, engaging in this kind of religious encouragement. If you weren’t from the United States and were traveling via subway, as many tourists in fact do, and saw a large billboard sponsoring religion, it would be dubious at best to say this wouldn’t generate confusion about the American legal system.

It also happens that just a few years ago an advertisement promoting Islam was being displayed on subway cars, and was being partially funded by an imam of a Brooklyn mosque who served as a character witness for the man convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. While I am not saying of course that all Muslims are terrorists or that all Islamic advertisements are funded by terrorists, it must be realized that there is some clear religiously guided message being provided from these billboards. At that time, due to the nature of its funding, this Islamic related billboard was under heavy debate, while currently these new, seemingly religiously content lacking atheist billboards, do not appear to be under particular scrutiny. Whether or not one buys the tax payer dollars argument, we have already looked at cases like Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, just to name one from class, where limited public forum has come into play, and quite frankly what I think I am getting at is, if these subway cars are government affiliated vehicles I believe there exists some right, to not be subjected to billboards displaying religious content while I commute to work in the morning.

12 comments:

jpeterson said...

I would have to agree with you that there is a double standard going on here. If it is government-owned space for advertising, is neutrality allowing both the religious and non-religious to advertise? One of the questions that we have been debating in our class this semester has been the definition of neutrality. In our legal system, there seems to be multiple takes as to what neutrality means, one of which is the claim that to be neutral is to keep religion out of the conversation. If this framework is applied to the advertisement space, the question is then asked, since religion is not being used and if atheism is not a religion, then do the atheistic advertisements encompass neutrality? Perhaps another way to look at this is that the atheistic advertisement could be seen as an attack on religion; thus one might be able to argue the government is supporting antireligious sentiments.

David I said...

The difficult part of this argument is determining whether or not the government is being hostile towards religion (or non-religion) by banning these advertisements on the New York Subway. I do not think that there is hostility in this case. Both children and adults utilize this service. Children would ask their parents about the advertisement and what it means, leaving parents in a sticky situation. As we have talked about throughout this semester, children are very easily swayed towards one thing or another. It should not be the role of a religious group to introduce religious ideals to children, rather it should be the responsibility of the parents. By placing these ads in the New York subways, this group may indirectly sway the ideals of young boys and girls. Rather than being hostile to religion I think the government is protecting the freedom of belief that is central to the constitution.

Christa L said...

Has anyone seen the commercials or heard the radio advertisements about the United Methodist Church? They're all over the place. Hasn't there been some sort of religious Christmas advertisements on MARTA (Atlanta's public transit)?

I find this case less problematic, because the organizations are paying the transit authority for the space - the transit authority is not using any money to support this and any religion could put up their own religious campaign.

Perhaps the question revolves around "Is atheism a religion, and therefore equally protected with equal restrictions?"

Caitlin said...

The neutrality question has been haunting me all semester. There is no one definition of neutrality or really of religion. It seems like “religion” changes meanings every day. So far we have seen judges say religion must be treated as special and judges say religions must be treated “no different”. Webster’s dictionary says
1 a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion) b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

And that 4th entry would include atheism and would have to be protected by the 1st amendment if you want to take the dictionary definition. And if the space is offered to everyone in a neutral way, then precedent says religion as well as non-religion has to be allowed to have the same paid advertising space. Also, if the ads are being put up in order to encourage people to think about religion than it seems like that would fall under “religious” but as we have discussed, it is not the Court’s job to determine purpose or sincerity. Also, in order for the Court to say anything about the ads, someone would have to formally complain, and I don’t know if that will happen in today’s world. The MTA is aware of the possible first amendment encroachment and claims that they have not violated it. If it were to come up in Court, I think it would pass muster. I don’t agree with the signs or think that it is the best message to send to the world, but I think it is done constitutionally…

Shannon H. said...

I certainly think that if the MTA allows atheist advertisements, it should also allow religious ads. Whether or not they should allow either is somewhat less clear for me, although I think I would have to end on the side of free speech and the public forum. As long as advertisements aren’t profane or otherwise obscene, or libelous, the MTA should allow all organizations equal access to their ad space as long as they have the funds. I feel that the precedent of related Supreme Court cases affirms this equality of access to the public forum. Though we may find atheist (or religious) ads annoying, goodness knows there are plenty of annoying ads out there, but we don’t have the right to be safe from annoyance—only to free speech. This free speech does, of course, contain the right to complain about being subjected to religious or anti-religious advertisements on our morning commute.

LaurenL said...

I agree with Shannon that if the MTA allows atheist advertisements then it should certainly allow religious advertisements. But I also feel that it would be best if neither religious nor atheist advertisements are displayed via the MTA's ad space. David brought up a good point by saying that many children utilize the metro system, and having either religious or anti-religious advertisements seems like an unnecessary and easily avoidable influence on them.

weinerjoy said...

As I read this posting, a couple of questions jumped out at me. What is the New York MTA's official policy on billboards? I'm assuming that it allows religious advertisements to be posted because of the blog author's reference to the Muslim billboard. If this is so, then why is the religious nature of this Atheist poster even relevant? There seems to be no violation of the Establishment or Free Exercise Clause in this situation.
In the second paragraph, the author notes the obvious fact that Atheism is not a religion, but in the next couple of sentences, a claim is made that the MTA is endorsing religion by allowing the poster. Maybe I misread this post, but I fail to see how the MTA is favoring religion over non-religion, or vise verse when it allows any group to post bills. If giant highway billboards on I85 south can be rented to proclaim "JESUS IS LORD"(which I see more than one of every time that I drive south), then I guess an Atheist group has the right to question if New York is "good without God" on a subway poster.

Rachel B said...

I have to agree with Christa’s comment in this situation. While I do not frequent Manhattan, the couple of times I’ve been and taken the subway system, I’ve seen posters promoting Jews for Jesus and the Metropolitan Christian Church. The subway is public advertising space. If these groups pay for the space, I believe it’s a non-issue. Of course, if the government was not requiring any sort of payment for these posters, then yes, this would absolutely be seen as violating the Establishment Clause. One thing I’ve noticed throughout this semester is the role that money plays in regard to religion and law. Advertising is not cheap, and if the atheists wish to spend their money on subway ads, who are we to say they can’t? Is real thing making people uneasy the fact that the message is taking God out of the equation?

Jonathan S. said...

I agree with weinerjoy on this one. Regardless of who owns it, space for rent is space for rent. Unless the MTA wishes to make specific exceptions in their advertisement policy, I see no reason why Atheist or Theist messages should be censored from the public eye. The MTA isn't endorsing either message by allowing the ad space to be taken in, for atheist dollars spend as well as Muslim, Christian, or Hindu dollars. Neutrality, in this case, would have to be defined as allowing all parties equal opportunity to pay to display their message - otherwise, one could call discrimination by allowing any other secular organization to place an ad while religious themed groups were forbidden.

OldPantherGSU said...

In reading the CNN news article my conclusion was that it was a slow news day and maybe the columnist had had a long night. There did not seem to be any issue except that the columnist related this event with the previous event advertising Islam. Without further research it seems the previous concern was not with the Islamic ads but with the funding for the ads.
The other consideration is the function of the transit system. Is this truly a government function or is this a commercial function that because of its size is operated by the government because private enterprise could not provide the service? Relate this to garbage collection. Many government units provide garbage collection yet in other areas garbage is collected by private enterprise. As a result courts have ruled that government garbage collection is not in the same category as police and fire departments. I would feel that it would be determined that the transit system was a commercial activity and would be require to make advertising space available to ALL parties under the guidelines without censorship.

nedwards13 said...

This is the first that I have read about this case. I find it fascinating that the State of New York and its citizens are in fact supporting this campaign financially. One point that I would like to argue is that it was stated that atheism is not a religion. In this case I believe that it can be argued that it is. These people are obviously being "evangelical" in nature by attempting to promote a belief. Much like the religious groups that hand out propaganda and come to our neighborhoods to pray and exchange a friendly word with us, so are these people that promote the belief in nothing. I feel that society confuses agnosticism and atheism for being the same thing yet they are not. I feel that the money that is used to fund this program should not be tax payer money because it is not a guarantee that the tax payer is in fact atheist. I for one am not bothered by the fact that they are promoting their beliefs. I do not believe the way they do but I surely believe they have the right to do, say and think as they wish within reason. I had a Religious Diversity class once where the professor said to us "sometimes atheist will be more evangelical then some protestant religions." I guess she was right

JoeyM said...

I fail to see the validity of the argument here. Why would posting a religious/anti-religious advertisement on a public transit line be wrong? The transit authority sells space to the highest bidder. If the church wanted to put an ad right next to it that said the opposite then it could. There is no favoritism here simply good business. I know I drive down the highway and see Jesus signs all over the place. these advertisements are regulated by a government organization as well. If we weren't allowed to have ads like this then I would suggest that the government is out of line. withholding a freedom like public advertisement would be awful. Although the ads were placed on a transit system funded (partially) by the government the choice to place ads on a government funded train and then discriminate against certain ads would be far more controversial.