Fort Worth

North Texas atheist group denied use of downtown Fort Worth banners, sues city

Metroplex Atheists said it believes this is a freedom of speech issue.

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On Tuesday, Fort Worth City Council is expected to review a 25-year-old policy regarding vertical overhead banners that are placed across downtown Fort Worth. It comes at a time when a local group called Metroplex Atheists is suing the city for denying their request to hang banners to promote an upcoming event.

"I think this is really a freedom of speech issue," said Umair Khan, president of Metroplex Atheists.

On Saturday, Aug. 26, the group is hosting a seminar with several speakers at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. They had planned to utilize banners to promote the event days leading up to it, but according to a lawsuit, the city of Fort Worth denied their request back in May.
Metroplex Atheists had planned to utilize banners to promote the event days leading up to it, but according to a lawsuit, the city of Fort Worth denied their request.

"I think at first we were shocked and surprised that they were willing to stand by this so sternly," said Khan, a Texas native.

He said that they had planned to print out 32 banners that said, 'Keep God out of our public schools.'

"They were denied before we could get them up. The city of Fort Worth said the reasoning was because it does not mean significant magnitude of historic or number of people, but that is not something that was in the policies which we made sure to confirm that we met all the criteria that are in the policies," said Khan.

According to the City of Fort Worth Banner Policy and Procedures which was implemented in 1998 under the Department of Transportation and Public Works, it states only nonprofit organizations are eligible to request permission to place banners on the 'public row' to promote an event held in Fort Worth that's 'open to the public or common interest of the general community, or recognize and/or contribute to the cultural fabric of the City.'

Walk or drive around downtown Fort Worth and the vertical banners are visible at all times representing different organizations.

Khan and his organization believe the city discriminated against their First Amendment rights. American Atheists is assisting with the federal lawsuit, which was filed on July 17, 2023.

"If the laws are one way, I think our representatives should uphold that law not interpret it for whatever ideological views they have. I think it's a failure of having democratic values and a representative and I hope that brings awareness to the fact that our government, our public infrastructure, our public schools, should be representative and inclusive to all people regardless of beliefs or values," said Khan.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the city of Fort Worth said they are aware of the lawsuit and the city has filed a response to the court.

As for the reason for the denial for the request for the banners from Metroplex Atheists, the city said, "The application for use of the City of Fort Worth’s downtown banners was denied as it did not rise to the magnitude and scale to be of common interest to the general community, or recognize and/or contribute to the cultural fabric of the City and the majority of its population."

Metroplex Atheists filed an injunction to overturn the city's decision, but the judge sided with the city.

Regarding the federal lawsuit, the city said," The City believes its banner policy is constitutional and intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

Khan disagrees it's constitutional.

“Even when it comes to denying the banners, we're the only ones that have been denied for reasons of ''significant magnitude.' It's never been used before," said Khan. "As American Atheists pointed out, this is a freedom of speech issue and they (the city) really do not have a strong case."

City leaders will look to adopt a new vertical and overhead banner policy on Tuesday. The resolution states that the new language, 'will add definitions, update specifications and maintenance requirements, continue agreements with non-profits to manage the banner program in certain areas of the City.'

Khan said he doesn't have proof, but believes the timing is suspect given their denial and lawsuit.

The group said this is larger than them.

“I think for a lot of people they might come off as this is somehow negative towards religion, and it's very important. I think for me to say that this is about inclusion, as I like to say as an atheist, if you're OK with me not having your beliefs, then I have a responsibility to show you the same respect," said Khan.

In 2019 Metroplex Atheists held a seminar and did get approval to place their signs around downtown Fort Worth. People did complain about the 32 bright yellow signs hanging on poles along Main Street that said, "In No God We Trust.”

Former Mayor Betsy Price even spoke to news outlets about the banners and said, "You know I don't agree with them either. I don't think they're the right thing to do. But they did follow policies and procedures and as we're prepared to celebrate America's Fourth, thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans have died for our right to express our opinion one way or another."

Khan said despite the rejection, they have rented out a billboard in Fort Worth with their message.

"Really, I hope that it does show all of our communities that we want representation, and we don't want our values, our moralities and in our place of our children's safety to be in the hands of people that are more interested in a very specific interpretation of this theocracy," said Khan who said he hopes to bring awareness and have thoughtful discussions about recent legislation at the state level.

"It's a decision that Texas did several months ago about someone gets a sign that says in God we trust and you can do that, and there were Muslims and other demographics that said, 'Hey here's a sign in Arabic about Allah and it was shut down by many school boards, so it is about religious freedom for all, rather than one specific interpretation of Christianity that doesn't reflect all values," expressed Khan.

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