Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall led 21 attorneys general to file a Short opposing the policy of the Hillsborough County Transit Authority in Florida denying a religious group’s First Amendment rights to advertise on public transportation. Young Israel of Tampa, Inc. v. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is currently before a federal appeals court.
“Whenever a violation of religious speech occurs, it is of serious concern to all who are dedicated to preserving the First Amendment,” Marshall said. “When a government-run transit authority allows advertising on its public buses but specifically prohibits any advertising that the government deems too religious, the government is clearly violating the First Amendment. We rightly support plaintiff, Young Israel of Tampa, Inc., in its challenge to the unconstitutional practice of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) banning religious advertising on its buses.
Marshall and the other 20 attorneys general claim in their brief that HART’s policy of banning religious speech violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and previous Supreme Court precedents.
“First, HART groups ‘religious affiliation advertising’ together with other forms of advertising it prohibits: advertisements for ‘tobacco, alcohol or related products’ and advertisements containing ‘profane language, obscene materials’, ‘nudity images’ or ‘a depiction[s]graphic violence”, among others”, Marshall et. Al. writes in their Short. “But one of those things is not like the others. By treating them the same way, HART sends the perverse message that religious speech is too controversial, too taboo, and too dangerous for public debate – a notion that runs counter to our nation’s history and tradition. celebrating religious speech and the First Amendment’s dual guarantees of the freedoms of religious expression and exercise.
The Conservative AGs brief continued: “Second, HART’s policy challenges a trilogy of Supreme Court cases asserting that the blanket ban on religious messaging is unconstitutionally point of view discrimination. This remains true even if HART’s bus advertising space is considered a “non-public forum”, as HART contends. Regardless of the forum, discrimination based on religious views is never allowed.
“Third, even if HART’s policy were not discriminatory, it fails as an unreasonable content-based restriction,” the brief adds. “HART has presented no evidence that allowing religious advertisements will impact its goals of maximizing revenue or operating a safe public transit system. And there is no reasonable way he could make the necessary plot to implement his policy without violating the Constitution – a fact this case demonstrates.
Marshall was joined by attorneys general from Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. in their brief filed September 14, 2022 in the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Judicial Circuit.
Young Israel of Tampa is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue that submitted an advertisement to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) seeking to advertise its annual Chanukah celebration. HART rejected the ad because it was religious – and it has a policy prohibiting all ads promoting alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, obscenity, nudity, pornography, of politics and religion. After Young Israel appealed to HART’s CEO, HART said it would only run the ad if it censored all references to a central element of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah: the menorah. Young Israel refused the request to remove its religious symbol from the ad, so HART refused to air it.
The Becket Fund represents Young Israel in its lawsuit against HART.
Becket argued that HART’s advertising policy is not only religiously offensive, but also violates the First Amendment. On February 5, 2021, Young Israel of Tampa filed a lawsuit against HART in the United States District Court for the Central District of Florida. On January 26, 2022, the federal district court granted summary judgment to Young Israel. The court found that HART’s ban on religious ads was both discriminatory and non-standard. The court also ordered that HART’s ban on religious ads be permanently barred from being enforced.
HART appealed this judgment to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
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