A federal appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit by the Colorado Springs-based Christian group Focus on the Family against a Florida public bus system that refused to advertise the organization's antigay conference. The 11th circuit U.S. court of appeals ruled that a federal judge in Tampa, Fla., erred when he threw out the group's 2001 lawsuit against the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. The appeals court said Focus on the Family can pursue its claim of First Amendment violations. The bus system had refused to allow the group to advertise its Love Won Out convention in St. Petersburg, Fla. "This is a great victory--we are elated," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for the group. Neither the attorney for the bus system nor its executive director returned phone calls requesting comment.
While private companies can usually reject advertising they don't want, the question in this case was whether a government entity working through a private company can do so. The transit company had a contract with an advertising company, Eller Media, which owns and manages 500 bus shelters. The two split the advertising revenues, but the transit company holds the final say on all advertisements placed on the shelters. Eller Media isn't named in the lawsuit. Focus on the Family wanted to advertise its February 2000 conference promoting its theory that homosexuality can be "prevented" or overcome
through prayer and religious practice. Minnery said such conferences are held in about five cities
nationwide each year and that about 25,000 people have attended 25 or so Love Won Out conferences. Pinellas County is the only place in the nation where conference advertisements have been banned, he said.
Focus on the Family was refunded the nearly $5,000 it paid to have posters installed in the bus shelters before the seminar. The group sued, arguing that the government cannot limit advertising because it fears the message might offend some. Erik Stanley, attorney for the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which is representing Focus on the Family, said the case is significant because it also addresses the "privatization" of government functions. "What the case really says is, the government can't hide behind a private company when it violates the Constitution," he said.