TAMPA — Reversing course, Hillsborough County's transit agency will allow the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations to advertise on its buses.
The unanimous vote by members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board of directors is a sharp turn from where members were in August, when eight of the 10 present rejected the advertisement on county buses, citing promotion of religion as a concern.
The vote, taken Monday evening, came after CAIR Florida filed a letter requesting an appeal.
The nonprofit organization says it is aimed at challenging stereotypes of Islam and Muslims and defending civil liberties.
Its ad features a photograph of eight people and the CAIR Florida logo, with the message: "Embracing Diversity at Work, Defending Civil Rights in The Community."
It is meant to promote free legal advice the group provides to people of all religions, races or national origin, the organization said.
"The general focus and thrust of our work is civil rights defense. We serve primarily the Muslim community because that is our donor base," said CAIR Florida spokeswoman Samantha Bowden. "But we also serve non-Muslim clients."
Last month, the board went against a HART staff recommendation when it rejected the advertisement. On Monday, board attorney David Smith said the directors typically have followed staff recommendations in the past. He also told board members that the applicant is not relevant to the decision.
"The only question is does the text of the ad comply with the applicable policy?" he said.
Two board members were absent for the vote. Some members placed blame for the initial rejection on the language of HART's advertising policy, which makes it difficult to discern between religious and civil rights organizations, said board member Mike Suarez, who serves on the Tampa City Council.
"I think we all agree the policy itself was unintentionally vague," said Suarez, who last month voted for the ban.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who was one of two votes in support of the advertisement during the first round, said he thought the rejection had more to do with the organization behind the ad.
"What happened on Aug. 5 was a great injustice … ," Beckner said at the meeting. "It's pure and outright hatred and discrimination and now this board has an opportunity to right that injustice. We can talk about what the policy looks like in the future, but the right thing today is to approve this ad."
In a letter to the editor of the Tampa Bay Times, HART board member John Melendez, an engineering consultant, countered that opinion.
"I respectfully and wholly disagree with those statements. Voting to ensure policy and the law are followed, and acknowledging policy needs to be changed, is not hatred. Rather it is an act of honoring the truth," he wrote.
CAIR Florida's Tampa executive director Hassan Shibly said his group is happy to be finalizing the design for the ad and hopes to have it appearing soon. "I think, frankly, they made a mistake," Shibly said, "and they recognized it and corrected themselves."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.