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RTS Bus Ads Displaying A Jesus Fish Spark First Amendment Controversy

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Regional Transit System buses are considered real estate for those looking to advertise.

Large, vinyl stickers are used to cover every inch of a bus in hopes that the advertisements will catch people’s eye.

What recently caught the eye of Gainesville’s Ray Hughes was a small fish figure located a foot above the bus’ license plate.

Hughes called the city office on Sept. 9 and said an RTS bus was displaying a religious symbol. He said the public advertisement is considered illegal and unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state.

The symbol Hughes was referring to is the ichthys, commonly known as the Jesus fish. The Christian symbol was printed on Allen Law Firm’s advertisement located on the back panel of several RTS buses.

RTS bans certain items within advertisements; religious symbols for one, according to spokesman Chip Skinner.

Skinner said Allen Law Firm’s approved advertisement did not originally have the Christian symbol. However, the advertisement printed and placed on each bus included the fish.

“In this particular case, some edits were made through a third-party vendor that we were not aware of, until a local citizen had sent an email to us,” Skinner said.

After receiving the complaint, RTS covered the religious symbol on all buses with a dark green, vinyl sticker to comply with the First Amendment, he said.

Gator Freethought member Megan Mufson, 20, said she completely agrees with RTS’s judgment.

“I cannot emphasize enough that there are several overlooked infringements of the separation of church and state, this being one of them, since this bus is indeed, a public entity,” said Mufson. “Allen has the ability to advertise on just about any private enterprise that allows him to do so, thus his right to free speech isn’t infringed upon entirely, and therefore should not be as much of a concern.”

Gator Freethought is a University of Florida student organization that “provides people of any religious background the opportunity to meet and discuss religion and nonreligion alike,” according to its website.

Not everybody agrees with RTS’s decision to censor Bill Allen’s graphic.

Charles Keeney Sr., 69, a U.S. Marine veteran, waits at Rosa Parks Downtown Bus Station three times a week to catch either Route 1 or 6.

“I don’t think it should be covered because it goes against the idea of freedom of speech,” said Keeney. “I think the covers should be taken off.”

Raymond Grable, 59, also said the symbol should not have been covered.

“I think each and every religion should be able to have their own freedom to do what they want to, as long as it is within the law,” he said.

Bill Allen did not return a request for comment.

About Mariana Riquezes

Mariana is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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