Faith leaders and Philadelphia officials gathered at Love Park Tuesday to urge the public not to be distracted by the anti-Muslim ads that will soon be displayed on more than 80 city buses.
Organizers of the event have launched a fundraising effort, and supporters say a message calling for interfaith dialogue will be unveiled Wednesday on a billboard overlooking I-76.
"The ads on the buses, as hateful as they seem, is an opportunity for Philadelphians to get to know their neighbors, to get to know someone different from them, to have these conversations," said Rue Landau with the city's Commission on Human Relations.
Imam Mikal Shabazz spoke out against blaming SEPTA for the ads, directing his message particularly at Muslim youth.
"Do not let this message affect you in a way that causes you to act in a manner which is unbecoming of a Muslim," Shabazz said. "It's the antithesis of Islam to go berserk and cause destruction, violence and vandalism against SEPTA. Don't do that."
Lawyers representing SEPTA decided last week to quit resisting placement of ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative following a federal judge's ruling that the New Hampshire-based nonprofit brought a legally sound First Amendment argument. The group opposes U.S. aid to Islamic counties and is headed by conservative blogger Pam Geller.
The Interfaith Center, which is behind the countercampaign, has already gathered more than $25,000 to finance its own advertisements, which will, according to the group, "reflect what Philadelphia is really about: mutual trust, understanding and cooperation among diverse communities."
Elad Strohmayer, Israel's deputy consul general in Philadelphia, said residents should know that Israel was not involved with the ads, noting that the country condemns the message as hateful.
"This ad has one goal: to inflame hate toward the Muslim community," Strohmayer said. "That's why I as an Israeli official will stand up and say that's not a pro-Israeli ad, that's not a pro-Jewish ad."
A month after AFDI sued SEPTA for not accepting its proposed ads, the transit authority changed its internal policy to expressly forbid ads that are "political in nature" in an effort to avoid future controversy.
But attorney David Yerushalmi, who is representing AFDI in the First Amendment dispute, said SEPTA's new policy is still overly broad, creating the possibility of being attacked in court. But he said AFDI has no intention to challenge the new provision – at least not yet.
SEPTA should ban all advertising other than commercial ads, he suggested, closing off city transit property as a public forum. Singling out political ads, he said, creates a convoluted policy.
"Suppose someone criticizes the pope under gay marriage. Is that permitted, or not permitted under this new provision?" Yerushalmi said.
A SEPTA spokeswoman said the Interfaith ad would indeed violate their new rules.
Meanwhile, If SEPTA runs another ad promoting indirect political speech similar to the Interfaith one, Yerushalmi said, AFDI would then attack the policy.
"I can say with fair assurance my clients will respond with counterspeech, and it will be up to SEPTA to uphold the First Amendment or not," he said.