ATHEIST BUS ADS IN OTTAWA
By Julie Breeze (Director, Humanist Association of Ottawa)

The Humanist Association of Ottawa has been working to bring ads to Ottawa buses saying: THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.

We are part of an international movement which began in Britain last June. A woman named Ariane Sherine went to a website advertised on a London bus and read that non-Christians will“spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels.”

Disgusted, she decided to counter with an ad of her own. She teamed up with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and the British Humanist Association, and set the goal of raising £5500 (about $10,000 Canadian) for their own counter-ads. Dawkins pledged to match all donations up to £5500. They settled on the slogan THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE. “Ours is a fun and light-hearted message,” said Sherine, “but it does have a serious point to it: that atheists want a secular country. We want a secular school (system) and a secular government.”

In spite of there being no plan or funding for soliciting donations, the money flooded in. The original fundraising target was met within twenty-four hours. Today the total raised in Britain is in excess of £140,000, which is being used to put bus ads in twenty cities across the nation.

The idea is spreading rapidly around the world. At the time of writing, groups of Freethinkers have placed ads in Canada, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and the USA. Groups are working on ads in Germany, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, and Croatia.

Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal accepted and ran the atheist ads. Halifax’s Metro Transit initially rejected the PROBABLY NO GOD ads on the basis that they were offensive, though they said they would reconsider Humanist Canada’s YOU CAN BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD if they “toned down the message” (!)  Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna BC, and London, ON do not accept religious advertising on their buses, and so rejected atheist advertising also.

Halifax transit officials announced they will be forced to reconsider their decision once the Supreme Court hands down a verdict in a pending related case. The Canadian Federation of Students and BC Teachers’ Federation are currently appealing BC TransLink’s decision not to allow their political advertising on Vancouver public transit on the grounds that this violates their right to freedom of expression. Given that BC TransLink is a public rather than a private company, and is thus obliged to follow public standards concerning freedom of speech, their success seems likely, and is expected to have a great impact on other Canadian cities’ decisions of whether to allow atheist bus ads.
In Genoa, Italy, the Catholic Church forced atheists to change their slogan from The bad news is that God doesn’t exist. The good news is that we don’t need him to The good news is that there are millions of atheists in Italy. The best news is that they believe in freedom of expression.

In Australia not only was the  “probably no god” message refused, but even Celebrate reason: Sleep in on Sunday mornings and Atheism – Celebrate reason were turned down by the largest outdoor ad company in the country.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation in the United States came up with very creative ads, including

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The atheist bus ads have become such a household word that the United Church of Canada has started running their own ad.

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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

People have opened their wallets to the campaign because they feel it gives a public voice to their point of view, in a way never seen before. It gives them a sense of solidarity with other atheists. They derive satisfaction from giving confidence to other nonbelievers and doubters who may feel bound by a need to appease religious family and friends.

The Humanist Association of Ottawa teamed up with the Freethought Association of Canada and atheistbus.ca to put Sherine’s ads on Ottawa buses. We were told that the Transit Committee had rejected our ads, but Pattision, the company which places advertising on the buses, offered us a discounted rate on roadside billboard ads instead. We thought about the billboards but decided to stick with our original application, since
OC Transpo had previously approved a number of Christian ads for the buses and we saw no reason why we should not receive equal treatment.

The HAO Board met on February 17th. Realizing that City councilor Alex Cullen, the Chair of the Transit Committee, had decided to ask the reason for OC Transpo’s rejection of our ads at a Transit Committee meeting the following day, it became clear through discussion that we should go to City Hall right before the meeting to make our opinion known.

The HAO put out a press release that night to every English-language media outlet in the Ottawa area. We contacted as many members as we could reach at the last minute. Seanna Watson (HAO President) spent most of the night making T shirts saying “Why not in Ottawa?” with our ad slogan. We didn’t think we’d be allowed to carry signs in City Hall, but we were pretty sure clothing was permitted (or even required).

In spite of the short notice, four of us were able to make it the next morning. We stood somewhat nervously in front of the door to the meeting room, not sure what would happen. There had been no time to apply for a permit or ask about rules. We didn’t know if we were allowed to be there, if we would be asked to leave, or if we were even at risk of being arrested.

And then the first cameraman showed up. We put blue tape over our mouths and waited. He came up and began photographing us. Then more people arrived. One asked us tentatively “Would you speak to us?”

I have never been too free with identifying myself as an atheist, for fear of the silent discrimination in our society. People almost never ask my religion, and if they do ask what they really want to know is whether I am part of their own particular denomination. I tell them I’m a Humanist.

That day we were surrounded by microphones, still cameras, and TV cameras. Everybody wanted to know our names and why we were there. It was just like a movie scene of a media scrum. I felt like after a lifetime of keeping my toes dry I was suddenly standing on the edge of the high diving board.

I took a deep breath and jumped in.

That day we were all over the news. I heard we were on CBC radio at noon, even before the vote had been taken at the meeting. We were on the television news, the radio, and in every one of the five daily English and French newspapers in the Ottawa area. The publicity was phenomenal!

Once the reporters had had the chance to interview and photograph us to their hearts’ content, we learned that we were allowed to attend the Transit Committee meeting. Alex Cullen even came over and told showed us the form we should fill out if we wished to have up to five minutes to address the Committee.

It took most of the day to get to the bus ad issue, with the journalists coming up to us periodically to take more photos or ask more questions. When the matter came up, Alain Mercier, the Manager of OC Transpo, waffled around a bit, ultimately giving several reasons for his staff’s decision to reject the ads. He said that the policy stated that religious advertising was unacceptable unless it advertised a specific event, with a date and time listed. (Nothing wrong with that policy, except that OC Transpo had previously accepted ads from the Anglican Church, the Pentecostal Church, and Bus Stop Bible Studies, none of which listed specific events, times, and places.) He said that they felt that our ad could be offensive to Transit riders, and that they had wanted to avoid controversy. Oops.

David Burton (another HAO director) addressed the Transit Committee, making a wonderful case for why we should be allowed to run the ads. Then another member of the public, Teresa Milligan, took a turn to speak. She stated that atheists should never be allowed to run ads, since the Stalinist Soviet Union was atheistic and they had committed
terrible atrocities, killing millions of people. Atheists are therefore dangerous people who should not be allowed to air their views.

When I heard that I knew that we could never let these ideas go unchallenged. Even though I had not planned to speak, and had not prepared any remarks, I quickly grabbed a “Request to Speak” form and scribbled in the required information as fast as I could before Milligan finished her five minutes of speaking time. A man appeared and took the form from my hand, and I was called to the microphone. I explained to the committee that Humanists never advocate or participate in violence of any kind, and that far more atrocities have been committed in the name of religion than in the name of Atheism. I cited the bombing of the World Trade Centre as one such example. One of the Guiding Principles of Humanism is that we advocate the peaceful resolution of conflicts. (I later discovered that Stalin’s evil was in fact committed in the name of Communism
rather than Atheism.)

The six councilors present at the meeting discussed the ads for a while prior to the vote on overturning the ban, with Cullen calling the ads censorship and a denial of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of freedom of speech. Councilor Marianne Wilkinson stated that she found the ad offensive to her as a Christian.  ‘It grates on me,’ she whined. They voted 3-3, not enough to overturn the ban, so Cullen said that he would bring the matter to a full City Council meeting on March 11.

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This time we had a chance to be much better prepared. Seanna added a back to the T-shirts which listed all 15 cities around the world where atheist bus ads were already running, along the lines of a rock concert tour, with Ottawa? at the bottom. We got together two dozen people from as far away as Bowmanville for a protest at the start of the meeting on March 11, and had lots more press coverage. There was a group of children who had been bussed in from a Christian school to protest our ads.

A new member of HAO, Paul LeClair, had written a song about the bus ads titled “Freedom of Expression”. He played it for the press, and then went outside to serenade the Christian schoolchildren with it.

At the meeting we learned that Alex Cullen had asked the City’s legal team to analyze the City’s chances of upholding their ban of our ads should we decide to take the matter to court. They released a six-page document giving all the reasons and precedents why the City hadn’t a hope of winning any such lawsuit. The City lawyer estimated the cost to the city of such a battle at about $10,000 – 20,000.

Marianne Wilkinson and her cronies on the council had another try at banning the ads, wanting to rewrite the city’s policy so as to exclude them. They had no particular plan of how they could word such a policy, given the legal opinion that it couldn’t be done, but their move would at least postpone the ads’ debut. Mayor Larry O’Brien spoke about the inter-faith council which he chairs, and said that everybody on the council felt that the ads should be allowed to run. In spite of this, he later voted to uphold the ban.

Alain Mercier was on the hot seat again, and was forced to admit that had he known that the ban would never stand up to a court challenge he would not have suggested it in the first place. At this point there were about fifteen of us sitting together in the public seats. Even though the public is not allowed to speak at full city council meetings, we were quite noticeable in our white T shirts, and the councilors were clearly aware of our presence, referring to us several times during the debate. At one point Cullen mentioned that the city “hadn’t a prayer” of winning a legal challenge, and the councilor beside him
gestured towards us chuckling in the audience, commenting “They got it!”

Whether due to personal convictions that it was the right thing to do, or from distaste at the idea of  wasting city money on an unwinnable legal battle, the Council voted 13-7 in favour of running our ads. The ads have been running on Ottawa buses since 7 April.

You can read more about the worldwide atheist bus campaign in the Summer edition of HumanistPerspectives, expected to be published in June.