Bus Ad Controversy

In August 2009, IAF sponsored a bus ad campaign, placing advertisements on twenty Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) buses. The message of the ads stated “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” However, four days after being installed on the buses, the ads were removed by DART, who cited numerous complaints from people offended by the ads and insisted that the ads had not been approved by the advertising commission before being installed. DART also assured IAF that a refund would be issued for the ads.

On August 6, 2009, Iowa Governor Chet Culver commented on the ad, stating that he “was disturbed personally by the advertisement and [could] understand why other Iowans were also disturbed by the message”. The governor’s statement heated the controversy, with the governor himself being accused of taking sides, divisiveness, and offensiveness towards the non-theist community. In response, IAF wrote a letter to the governor, expressing regret with his remark and inviting him to one of the organization’s meetings.

On the same day, the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the legality of the ad’s removal, and requested a review of DART’s advertisements policies. Also on August 6, 2009, DART reported that after the incident received media coverage, they received more calls in support of the ad than against it, and proposed that IAF re-design its ad and submit it for DART’s consideration.

On the afternoon of August 7, 2009, the DART officials had a meeting with the representatives of the IAF during which IAF refused to consider running an alternate bus ad, stating that the removal of the ads is a freedom of speech issue, while DART agreed to update its advertising policies to “keep pace with [the] progress”. Later during the day DART announced that the ads would be restored on the buses in an unaltered form.

As a result of the controversy, IAF membership doubled from what it was before the beginning of the campaign, while DART reported increased interest in bus advertising from other groups, including a religious one.

The controversy, however, re-ignited several days later when a DART driver was suspended for refusing to drive a bus with the IAF’s sign, stating that the sign goes against her faith. On August 20, the ad was protested in downtown Des Moines by a local resident, who compared it to “pornography”.

In the beginning of September, DART adopted a new, “more open”, advertising policy, which required formal approval of any ad’s design prior to the signing of the contract.