It’s real simple. The bus company, heavily subsidized by local tax money, turned down more than $5,000 in bus advertising because its designated ad agency didn’t like the religious content of the message shown here. The United Coalition for Reason wanted to run it, as a tame statement that atheists and agnostics are not bad people.

Lydia Robertson, who runs the ad agency with the contract to handle bus advertising, effectively nixed the deal by demanding a $36,000 damage deposit. No damage deposit has been asked of two churches that advertise on CATA buses — Geyer Springs First Baptist and Fellowship Bible. Robertson said she feared vandalism. “… in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”

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Sad to say, Robertson’s view of Christianity is not without some anecdotal justification. Do unto us as we wish, or “upstanding” Christians will beat you, silence you or otherwise cram their beliefs down your throat.

It is no defense for CATA to say the ad decision was that of a private agent, not the public bus company. The decision was made in consultation with CATA, e-mails show. Robertson made it clear she would stall and fight back with her own attorney (in increasingly shrill and combative emails) to drive off the atheists’ advertising.

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It was a dark day for the First Amendment that atheists had to file a suit in federal court to run such an innocuous message. It was a dark day for CATA’s integrity when it sent its attorney out to argue that he didn’t believe the atheists really wanted to run the ad, they just wanted a lawsuit. Paid advertising in 36 other markets, including Fayetteville, is sufficient rebuttal of that lame argument.

I support public transit. I think we don’t support it sufficiently with tax money. I like Betty Wineland. But I don’t like governmental suppression of unpopular messages, be it advertising for the bus company itself (quite unpopular among the Tea Party types) or for a small band of atheists who threaten society with nothing more dangerous than a little free thinking. (I know. A little enlightenment can be a dangerous thing.)

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Wineland tells me at press time that she hopes for a resolution of the dispute short of a trial and that this was her desire all along. “It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way,” she said. There’s a simple gauge of these professed good intentions: Run the ad on CATA buses, with the same damage deposit required of churches — zero.

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