Will "Jesus" Be Banned From Colorado Springs Bus Benches?

"This is against everything our nation stands for."

That's how Pastor Lawson Perdue sees the announcement that he can no longer use the word "Jesus" on bus benches promoting his church, the Charis Christian Center.

This edict was made even more surprising because of where it took place — in Colorado Springs, which is so well known as the state's most Christian community that last Christmas, an atheist group posted billboards there encouraging people to skip church.

The controversy that followed was so widespread that Colorado Springs officials appear to be in the midst of blinking. Perdue says he's been told the situation may be resolved in his favor by week's end. If so, he notes, "We won't have to go through any legal thing to get it corrected."

And if it isn't? Then Perdue will be ready — because he's got law firms literally lining up to take the case.

Here's how Perdue tells the tale.

"We've been running ads on bus benches as part of our Jesus campaign for over three years," he notes. "We started with the very simple message 'Celebrate Jesus.' Then, last year, we did 'Experience Jesus.' And this year, we did 'Jesus is Lord.'

"Our contract is coming up for renewal on July 10, and last Tuesday [June 21], a person from Street Media Group," a Colorado-based firm specializing in outdoor advertising, "informed me that I could contract the time going forward but they no longer would allow me to use the name of Jesus.

"I told her that was not acceptable to us, and following our conversation, I talked with a person from Mountain Metro Transit," the Colorado Springs agency that manages bus service there. "She informed me that, yes, that was correct — we could no longer use the name Jesus. I asked her what the problem was, and she said that if they allowed me to use the name of Jesus, they would have to allow hate messaging."

This response left Perdue agog. "I told her there's no way the name of Jesus is hate messaging. She said, 'That's not what I mean.' And I said, 'That's what you were implying.'"

Next, Perdue contacted the office of Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers "hoping to get a clarification. But we never got any clarification, and on Wednesday and Thursday, Street Media Group reinforced that we could no longer use the name of Jesus in our advertising — and I didn't agree to those terms, because they're totally against freedom of speech and freedom of religion. So on Friday, I sent a letter to the mayor's office and all the city council — and I was going to wait until Monday to release it to the media. But one of the city council members gave a copy to the Independent."

That's the Colorado Springs Independent, an alternative publication whose piece on the topic, headlined "City Threatened With Free Speech Lawsuit for Jesus Ban," spurred separate responses from Mountain Metro Transit and the City of Colorado Springs in which the agencies said they were reviewing the policy, as well as a slew of additional reports. Perdue points out that "it went out on the local TV stations, it went out on Fox News national, Franklin Graham picked it up and sent it out to four million people. We even heard from Nairobi, Kenya. We've gotten word from all over the world, and a tremendous amount of support."

This isn't the first time that bus-related advertisements mentioning Jesus have caused a stir. Back in 2009, officials in Broward County, Florida, considered banning the use of such ads after a public outcry over a message that read, "ISLAM: The Way of Life of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad." In that case, the complaints came mainly from Christians who objected to the notion that Jesus was a follower of Islam — and today, a purchasing agreement for transit advertising on the official Broward County website reads in part, "No defamatory, libelous, slanderous, obscene, religious or political advertising is allowed, and final determination about such shall be at the sole discretion of COUNTY."

Perdue is determined not to let something similar happen in Colorado Springs. "We contacted the Alliance for Defending Freedom, and they've agreed to take our case and communicate with the city if they need to. And three other different national legal organizations have contacted us and offered to take the case, too."

That may not be necessary. According to Perdue, a source within the city has told him "there may be a clarification by the end of the week, and we may not have to go into court to get this corrected. I hope they're going to take care of this on their own — but it's still up in the air until they give us a legal verification."

If officials retract the ban, Perdue says, "I'll continue to advertise" on the bus benches. "The city has been very good to deal with in the past, and people in our church like the ads."

In the meantime, he's pleased by the variety of people who've rallied to his cause.

"We've gotten a lot of support from people in different churches, and even some non-believers saying this is just wrong — you're buying this space, you're paying for it, and you ought to have freedom to use Jesus's name," he says, adding, "This community stands for freedom."

Here's a Fox31 report featuring Perdue.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts