FL: Religious ads were banned on Tampa buses. Court rules that unlawful.

Jan. 23, 2024
The case is but one example of transit systems finding themselves at the center of debates about free speech and religious freedom.

With their annual Hanukkah celebration approaching, Young Israel of Tampa, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, wanted to place an ad on the local bus network to spread the word.

The ad included an image of a menorah, and highlighted that there would be ice skating, music and food.

But the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority rejected the October 2020 proposal. Since 2013, the agency has prohibited religious advertising.

This month, an appeals court found the ban violated the First Amendment.

The agency implemented a policy to reject advertisements that “primarily promote a religious faith or religious organization” because of its “interests in ensuring safe and reliable transportation services,” according to court records.

The policy does not define “religious” or “primarily promote.” The agency provided staff no specific training or written guidance on interpretation.

The case is but one example of transit systems finding themselves at the center of debates about free speech and religious freedom.

In 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas, the local transit agency banned religious advertising after several Christian groups protested ads bought by an atheist group that said: “Millions of Americans are good without God.” In 2015, officials in Washington, D.C., suspended all issue-oriented messaging in the public transit system, as well as any related to religion or politics, because of security concerns over anti-Muslim-themed ads. New York City transit officials put a similar prohibition in place.

When Young Israel sent a proposed advertisement for its 14th annual “Chanukah on Ice” event at the Advent Health Center Ice Rink in 2020, the Hillsborough transit agency provided suggested edits to the text and images, including removing all references to the menorah.

Young Israel refused and the agency, in turn, refused to run the ad.

A year later, Young Israel filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. In 2022, the court found the ban to be both discriminatory and inconsistently applied.

The transit agency, for example, rejected an advertisement from St. Joseph’s Hospital because the hospital was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, but said it would accept the advertisement if the hospital used the name of its parent company, Baycare. Meanwhile, the agency ran advertisements from Saint Leo University — the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in Florida — without any changes.

The court ordered the agency to no longer ban ads that primarily promote religious faith or religious organizations. The agency appealed, arguing the permanent injunction was too broad and should only apply to the current policy, not future language.

This month, an appeals court affirmed that the agency’s policy violated the First Amendment and was unreasonable due to a lack of objective and workable standards. The policy “vests too much unchecked discretion” in agency employees, the court ruled.

Now, a spokesperson said, the agency is updating its policy to reflect the ruling.

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