TAMPA — Hillsborough County's transit agency rejected a bus advertisement Monday with a pro-diversity message from the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying it promotes religion, too.
The 8-2 vote, with board members Fran Davin and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner on the losing end, went against a recommendation by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit staff, who said the ad could be allowed under their policies. However, board attorney David Smith acknowledged a legal challenge was possible one way or the other.
"There's certainly a possibility you will have a First Amendment issue no matter which way you go, unfortunately," Smith said before the vote.
The proposed ad features a photograph of eight people and the CAIR Florida logo, along with the message: "Embracing Diversity at Work, Defending Civil Rights in The Community."
A statement from CAIR afterward indicated the people pictured are its staff, four of whom identify as Muslim. It was meant to promote free legal advice the group provides to people of all religions, races or national origin, the statement read.
CAIR Florida's Tampa executive director Hassan Shibly said later that it was disappointing that a message promoting diversity would be deemed unacceptable on buses, which were so central to the civil rights movement. He said the group works to protect equal rights for all.
"We hope their denial was based on misinformation and once that misinformation is cleared up they will allow our ads. Otherwise we will be forced to take legal action," Shibly said.
CAIR initially approached HART about three months ago, seeking to pitch a different ad that is part of a national campaign seeking to reframe the word "jihad" to be a struggle as opposed to holy war. In some other cities, buses have carried such messages as " '#MyJihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule.' What's yours?"
But HART staff said the message, with its use of "jihad" and its more commonly understood meaning, violated its policy prohibiting ads that "primarily promote a religious faith or religious organization." An attempt at a compromise that avoided use of the word but used "Muslim" failed to win staff support.
That led to the current proposal, which HART management still felt was controversial enough to run by board members. And indeed, they had problems with it.
Board member Mike Suarez, who serves on the Tampa City Council, said a visit to CAIR websites makes clear to him that it is a religious organization and not simply a civil rights organization. Under the board's policy, he said he thinks HART would have had to reject an ad from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s.
Board member John Melendez noted that while CAIR is identified by an acronym, one cannot overlook that it has the largest font in the ad and that the "I" stands for Islamic.
"Obviously the question at its core is, is CAIR a religious organization?" he asked. "As I read this, the thing that is being promoted is CAIR."
Given how the ad has evolved, board member Wallace Bowers said he believes CAIR's religious intent is clear and it is now seeking to circumvent HART rules. Member Mark Sharpe, who serves on the County Commission, agreed.
Sharpe said he had no problem with the message being promoted. But he said there is a reason HART prohibits not only religious messages on its buses but political ones as well.
"I want this to be a place where everybody feels completely comfortable," he said. "I think there is a definitely a place for a message like this," but not on HART buses.
Three board members were absent for the vote. Beckner, one of the two supportive votes, said afterward that he didn't understand what the controversy was. Government officials should promote tolerance and acceptance.
"I don't see anything inflammatory," Beckner said. "I think it's doing what we should be doing as a community, and that is embracing diversity."
Times staff writer Jimmy Geurts contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.