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Did the city of Fort Worth violate atheists’ First Amendment rights? Experts weigh in

A billboard with a yellow background and blue letters reads, "Keep God Out Of Our Public Schools" and "seminar, Aug. 26th FTW Botanic Gardens,"
The Metroplex Atheists organization plans to promote its “Keep God Out of Our Public Schools” event through a billboard where Anglin Drive and Interstate 820 intersect.

Four years ago, the city of Fort Worth was hit with backlash after allowing Metroplex Atheists, a North Texas nonprofit, to promote an event with signs on downtown street lights.

Now, the same organization is suing after the city denied its request to promote another event. Three constitutional law experts say that previous controversy over the banners created tension between the organization and city officials. To avoid a First Amendment violation, they say, Fort Worth’s legal team will have to provide a clear explanation in court for denying the banner request this time.

“The lawsuit is trying to advance that the basic cardinal principle has been violated,” said Dale Carpenter, a professor of law atSouthern Methodist University.

The question in court will be whether the city refused the banner approval based on its disagreement with the organization’s message, Carpenter said.

“A government, including the city of Fort Worth, as a general rule, cannot discriminate in speech regulations, on the basis of the content, or the viewpoint of the speech. That's the basic principle. Now, it's more complicated than that,” Carpenter said.

The city of Fort Worth’s legal department issued a statement saying that “the city is aware of the lawsuit, believes that it acted appropriately and will defend its position in court.”

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker’s communications team told the Fort Worth Report that “Mayor Parker does not have a comment at this time due to pending litigation.”

“Maybe this time around they didn't want to appear to be endorsing it, or being associated with it,” said Brian Owsley, a professor of law atUNT Dallas College of Law. “But the purpose of the complaint is basically saying they don't get to pick and choose which opinions or which thoughts get to go on the banner.”

“The problem is you have this banner program and the banners are supposed to be for seemingly all comers,” Owsley said. “But part of what's going on is the city's promoting these events now. Are they promoting religious events? So there could be tension with that.”

Fort Worth’s banner policy and procedures is administered by the Department of Transportation and Public Works, in which the director or their designee “shall have sole authority to approve banner applications (including design/content, location and installation dates and issue a Banner Permit,” according to the policy.

Metroplex Atheists made statewide headlines in 2019 after the city of Fort Worth received several complaints for allowing the organization to use the city’s banner program to promote its event advocating for separation between church and state. The group’s bright yellow banners proclaiming “In No God We Trust” hung along downtown light posts.

In October 2022, Metroplex Atheists asked Downtown Fort Worth Inc. to again use the city’s banner program, this time to promote an Aug. 26 panel about keeping prayer out of public schools. In May, the city told the group that the application was denied, stating that Metroplex Atheists “was not in compliance with the Banner Forum policy and that said the policy had been ‘tweaked’ since MA [Metroplex Atheists] took part in the Banner Forum in 2019,”according to the complaint.

Later that month, the group claims, the city said the application “was denied because the event was not of a ‘magnitude’ to qualify.” The organization filed the civil complaint July 17, alleging that the decision infringes upon Metroplex Atheists’ freedom of speech, establishment and exercise of religion, according to the complaint. The lawsuit is filed under the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth.

Metroplex Atheists’ complaint argues that “the Banner Policy makes no reference to the expected “magnitude” of any event promoted.”

Metroplex Atheists’ 2019 “In No God We Trust” banners generated nearly 100 complaints, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram previously reported, and four of the displays were vandalized. Then-Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price also tweeted: “While many of us may not agree with the message, the organization did follow policies and procedures set forth by the city and Downtown Fort Worth Inc.”

Metroplex Atheists is an affiliate group ofAmerican Atheists, a national organization that describes atheism as a “lack of belief in gods,” according to its website. The organization defines atheism as “not a belief system nor is it a religion.”

Lawrence Sager, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law, specializes in both constitutional law and religion law. Sager said that even though atheism is not a religion, it is still protected under the First Amendment.

“The government can’t discriminate between religions or among religions and neither can it discriminate between religious and non-religious beliefs,” Sager said.

The complaint alleges that the city violates the free speech clause, the establishment of religion clause and the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.

“The fact that there is this religious background to the situation, just makes the situation worse,” Sager said. “But the situation is plenty bad for the city without any reference to the religion clauses. Free speech is very powerful here on the landscape.”

The complaint alleges that the city has previously permitted banners promoting “pro-religious events,” citing Kenneth Copeland Ministries, “which used the Banner Forum to promote its Southwest Believers Convention,” according to the complaint.It also mentions religiously affiliated organizations such as Texas Christian University as using the banner program.

“The city of Fort Worth simply just gave us an arbitrary statement that they've never used before, and this is the first time they're applying it to us,” said Umair Khan, president of Metroplex Atheists.

Khan said he wanted the banners displayed in downtown Fort Worth from Aug. 8-22 and cost $4,700 to make.

The banner policy states that, if an application is denied, the organization can request the director to bring in a City Council committee to consider the application.

Metroplex Atheists requested an appeal, the complaint claims, but the city said that the denial would be upheld and that the committee mentioned in the banner policy no longer existed. Fort Worth is putting the banner program on pause while the city reviews and possibly updates the existing policy,the complaint said.

“The city suddenly announces a moratorium on these applications at just the time this group is going to have its event. So the timing is suspicious. The moratorium is suspicious,” SMU’s Carpenter said.

Both Carpenter and UNT’s Owsley said they have questions for the city and they want officials to explain more about the allegations over the banner policy being reviewed.

“I'm not saying it’s going to be in jeopardy, but the city may be in trouble if it's proven that they were discriminating on the basis of First Amendment violations,” Owsley said.

This is just the beginning of the legal process, Carpenter said. Metroplex Atheists is being represented by attorneys from Glast, Phillips & Murray, a Dallas-based law firm along with a legal team from American Atheists.

To prepare for trial, Metroplex Atheists and the city’s legal team will engage in a process called discovery, which is “the formal process of exchanging information between the witnesses about the witness and evidence they’ll present at trial,” according to the American Bar Association.

This means that emails, witnesses sworn out-of-court-testimony, also known as depositions and other materials are submitted as evidence, UTA’s Sager said.

The complaint alleges that Metroplex Atheists submitted a public records request with the city’s Public Records Department “seeking a list of all nonprofits that had applied for banner displays in 2022” and the year-to-date in 2023, along with the name, date and location of the event. The complaint claims that Metroplex Atheists has yet to receive any records responsive to the request.

“One of the things that may happen even before discovery is that the city will be forced to comply with the public information request,” Sager said. “One way or another, we’ll get closer to the facts.”

The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction, or an early, short-term decision if the banners can be displayed for the Aug. 26 event. Then the court can go back later on to give a more in-depth consideration of the lawsuit and its censorship and discrimination allegations, Carpenter said.

“Lawsuits can take months, even years to be resolved,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “In this case, because the event that they're trying to host is coming up in five weeks, and the timeframe for when they wanted to advertise for the event is in just a couple of weeks. We need the court to act more quickly.”

Khan said Metroplex Atheist will continue to promote its event on social media. Khan also said he plans to put the message on a billboard where Anglin Drive intersects with Interstate 820.

“I chose to have a panel to show that we’re about secular values, which is not that no one can have a faith, but that everyone has a right to have their opinions and beliefs,” Khan said.

The legal battle between the city and Metroplex Atheists underscores the complexities of the First Amendment doctrine and lawsuits involving it.

“The only speech that's ever suppressed is unpopular speech, but the government knows that it cannot suppress speech simply because it's unpopular,” Carpenter said. “These allegations may be untrue. I don't know if they're true or not, but the city's going to need to come up with some kind of explanation.”

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at or on Twitter at @marissaygreene

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member and covers faith in Tarrant County for the Fort Worth Report.