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Atheist group sues City of Fort Worth for discrimination after denying downtown banner ads

A court filing says the city denied the banners because its advertised event did not meet a "magnitude" criteria.

FORT WORTH, Texas — A North Texas atheist group is suing Fort Worth. Metroplex Atheists said the city violated its First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

The group applied to hang banner ads downtown for an Aug. 26 event.

Umair Kahn, president of Metroplex Atheists, said the event is a seminar on keeping religion out of public schools.

"The banner will say, 'keep God out of public schools,'" Khan said.

According to a court filing, the city claimed the event was not of, “sufficient magnitude," so the group was denied permission to hang the banners.

Ads are hung on poles owned by the city in the downtown area. They are managed by the downtown advocacy nonprofit Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

Khan said Metroplex Atheists did everything to meet the city's banner policy. He believes the group's banners were denied "purely on trumped-up claims nowhere in the policy to disguise their prejudice."

In a response to WFAA about the lawsuit, the city stated: “The City is aware of the lawsuit, believes that it acted appropriately and will defend its position in Court.” 

Khan, and the court filing against the city, said Fort Worth hangs banners advertising events from Christian churches. He said he understands not everyone will agree with his beliefs, or that of his group. Khan defended his right to have his beliefs, and others' right to have an opinion about it. 

He said, however, the Constitution is clear when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

"Any attack on anyone's religious freedom affects all of our religious freedom," said Khan.

A constitutional law professor at SMU, Dale Carpenter, who is not involved in the case, said the city's "magnitude" argument may fall short.

"It may be very difficult for the city to maintain that position," Carpenter said.

Carpenter specializes in First Amendment law. He said Fort Worth's banner policy, which is open to the public, does not have a "magnitude" criteria for banners advertising events.

"This may be the kind of thing that was simply open to the judgement of whatever official was approving or denying these banner applications," Carpenter said. "That kind of discretion cannot be permitted to city officials because it can be used as a pretext, as a cover, for discrimination based on the ideas.”

Khan said he believes Metroplex Atheists have a legitimate case in court, but hopes Fort Worth will do what he believes is, constitutionally, the right thing.

Metroplex Atheists have been allowed to hang banners advertising for a similar event in 2019. Those banners, which said "in no God we trust," stirred controversy and prompted a response from then-Mayor Betsy Price.

Price said she disagreed with the group’s message but urged residents to respect its freedom of speech.

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