Fort Worth, TX—Today, the North Texas atheist group Metroplex Atheists filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Fort Worth. The group is represented by American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and local counsel Glast, Phillips & Murray. The complaint accuses the City of discriminating against atheists and violating their freedom of speech.
Since at least 1998, Fort Worth has permitted nonprofit organizations to rent out space on downtown lamp posts to advertise events. These nonprofits include Kenneth Copeland Ministries and Texas Christian University. By its policy, the City has created a limited public forum under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and may not discriminate based on viewpoint, which includes atheism. The Supreme Court recently confirmed these protections in its 2022 decision Shurtleff v. Boston.
Nonetheless, the City of Fort Worth has denied Metroplex Atheists the right to advertise an event on combating Christian nationalism and protecting secular public schools, planned for August 26 at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens. Assistant City Manager William Johnson, who denied the banner display, claimed that the education event was not of “sufficient magnitude.” Yet nowhere does the City’s Banner Display Policy mention such a requirement.
“We did everything to meet the City of Fort Worth’s Banner Policy. We were denied purely on trumped-up claims nowhere in the policy, to disguise their prejudice,” said Umair Khan, President of Metroplex Atheists and a Texas assistant state director of American Atheists. “The City of Fort Worth’s decision infringes upon our fundamental constitutional rights. This authoritarian and theocratic action enables Christian nationalist groups to attack the democratic rights of all citizens and our public schools–which is the focus of our seminar.”
In 2019, the City of Fort Worth allowed Metroplex Atheists to post banners under this program. The organization’s striking banners, “In No God We Trust,” made national headlines and led to a number of complaints. The mayor at the time, Betsy Price, said on Twitter, “While many of us may not agree with the message, the organization did follow policies and procedures … We must respect freedom of speech.”
“Free speech is free speech, whether or not the government likes that speech or certain members of the community object to it,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists, who wrote the complaint. “The City of Fort Worth’s attempt to silence atheists for opposing theocracy is textbook viewpoint discrimination.”
Metroplex Atheists is seeking injunctive relief directing the City of Fort Worth to approve the organization’s application and display the banners from August 8 to 22, injunctive relief preventing Fort Worth from excluding Metroplex Atheists in the future, and damages and attorney fees.
The suit has been filed in the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division, and is case 4:23-cv-00736-O.