Atheist ads can go on buses, council decides

Atheist ads can go on buses, council decides

OTTAWA — Ottawa Council has voted to allow advertisements on the city’s bus fleet that question the existence of God.

Councillors voted 13-7 Wednesday to overrule OC Transpo management, which had not permitted ads that read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The ads, from the Free Thought Association of Canada, are running on buses in Toronto, London and Calgary.

Bay Councillor Alex Cullen, chairman of council’s transit committee, said the right to express opinions is fundamental to a free society and a precious part of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He said that while the ads might make some council members uncomfortable, a free society must be prepared to permit expression of dissenting views.

And he said that city buses are not a trivial matter, since it was on buses that American black people gained civil rights in the 1960s.

Somerset Councillor Diane Holmes said it’s a good thing to have an open discourse about religion with diverse views, as long as those views do not express hatred.

The only councillor to speak clearly against the move was Orléans Councillor Bob Monette, who said that council should show respect for the church and should never condone the placement of offensive ads on public property. Transpo management had rejected the ads on the grounds that they were offensive to some people and the company has a policy of not running offensive ads.

Some other councillors didn’t want council deciding what is allowed or not allowed. The transit company is going to review its policy for taking ads.

The city’s solicitor, Rick O’Connor, gave councillors a legal opinion that if the city goes ahead with banning the ads, the move could be challenged in court and the city would likely lose.

“It will be difficult for the city to justify its rejection of the ads,” said O’Connor in his legal opinion.

He said such a legal case would cost the city between $10,000 and $20,000.

Cullen presented a motion to have OC Transpo accept the ads which was approved by: councillors Clive Doucet, Christine Leadman, Peter Hume, Diane Holmes, Jan Harder, Michel Bellemare, Peggy Feltmate, Steve Desroches, Jacques Legendre, Georges Bédard, Gord Hunter, Shad Qadri and Cullen. Voting against the motion were: Marianne Wilkinson, Bob Monette, Rainer Bloess, Eli El-Chantiry, Doug Thompson, Rob Jellett and Mayor Larry O’Brien.

The matter was before full council after a split vote at transit committee.

The mayor voted against the motion at council even though he said he had met with religious leaders in the community who said they were not bothered by the ads and welcomed expressions of free speech.

A crowd of people wearing T-shirts with the advertisement’s message sat quietly throughout council’s deliberations and seemed pleased with the outcome.

“Do we have the right to be non-religious? Council has voted that yes, we do,” said Paul Bendus.

Supporters of the ads had argued that the city has run religious advertisements before and city councillors were allowing their personal religious beliefs to influence their handling of the issue.

David Burton, director of the Humanist Association of Ottawa, said that the council decision isn’t just about the ads. He said the decision was a victory for people with all kinds of religious beliefs and faiths.