Fort Worth's buses are quickly becoming an unlikely and very public forum for a debate over the existence of God.
A few days after acknowledging that it had sold advertising space to a group of nonbelievers -- who bought ads saying "Millions of Americans are Good Without God" to run for 30 days on four buses -- officials from the Fort Worth Transportation Authority now say they are arranging for several churches to buy similar ad space at comparable rates.
"We're offering ad space, but they have to buy it. It's not free," said Dick Ruddell, president of the T.
Ruddell added that the T's board, which holds its next monthly meeting Dec. 15, also will likely discuss and possibly reconsider its decision to allow faith-based advertising on its buses. Other agencies in the U.S., including Dallas Area Rapid Transit, have chosen not to accept religious advertising rather than deal with a potential firestorm.
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The T's decision to offer churches advertising space came as several Fort Worth African-American pastors called on Thursday for a passenger boycott of city buses displaying advertising that they say is offensive to Christians.
The disputed signs were paid for by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, which said this week that the ads are not an attack on religion but were intended to let nonbelievers know that they are not alone.
Despite the call for a boycott, the religious community's response has not been unified, particularly in the east Fort Worth neighborhoods heavily served by both churches and buses.
Bishop B.E. George, of the group Ministers Against Crime, met with a T official Thursday morning at the Harvey Avenue Missionary Baptist Church and said a resolution might be forthcoming.
"It's two different approaches," George said. "From our perspective, it looks like this might head off a boycott."
George declined to discuss specifics of the meeting, which was a regularly scheduled gathering of the Ministers Justice Coalition of Texas, a collection of other community ministerial groups.
A second group of pastors, those who are calling for a boycott, talked independently with the news media outside the Harvey Avenue church earlier Thursday morning, saying the signs have no place on city buses.
"The T, which is supported with public funds, plans to display a sign that is offensive to our community," said Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church. "If that was anti-Semitic, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"If the signs go up, we'll walk off the buses," Tatum said.
Other pastors in the community say they will back a boycott if it happens, but they have their own views of the situation.
"If the Fort Worth pastors come together and say there will be a bus boycott, I will support that," said Ralph W. Emerson Jr., senior pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church. "The signs on the buses for me are not offensive, because they paid to advertise God. And, me riding the bus does not say that I am in agreement with the signs posted on it."
There are no plans to drop the ads, said Tony Johnson, the T's executive vice president of operations who met with the group.
Many people have called his office about the issue, Johnson said, mostly to express opposition to the signs.
"I don't anticipate any problems" as far as security on the buses, Johnson said. "We won't know which routes will see the buses until the signs go up. Another company comes in and puts new signs on as older ones expire, and that's what determines the routes."
The ads were set to debut Wednesday, but a printing problem delayed the decals being placed on the buses, Ruddell said. However, they will likely hit the streets early next week, possibly Monday, another official said.
Ruddell said the T offered ad space to churches not to placate those angry at the T for selling ad space to atheists and agnostics, but out of fairness.
He said the churches would be offered ad space at the same rate the coalition and other advertisers pay. Earlier this week, a T spokeswoman said the coalition paid about $2,480 for printing and ad space for the four "king board" ads that would essentially cover the sides of the buses.
Four city buses will display the ads for 30 days.
Ruddell, asked Thursday whether he regretted allowing the ads that sparked the controversy, quipped: "It proves that advertising on buses really does work."
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657