By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia appeals court will hear arguments on Thursday in a Ku Klux Klan chapter's lawsuit against the state for refusing the white supremacist group's application to "adopt" a stretch of highway.
The KKK chapter, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Georgia in 2012 after it refused to let it join the state's adopt-a-highway program, which involves volunteers picking up trash and planting trees along designated sections of road. Logos of participating groups appear on signs along the highways.
Georgia officials cited public safety concerns when they denied the application, telling the Klan chapter that erecting a sign with its name could lead to social unrest and distract drivers.
The court takes up the case at a time of soul-searching across the U.S. South about race relations. Lawmakers in neighboring South Carolina are debating whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, a longstanding demand of those who see it as a racist symbol.
The issue was resurrected after the massacre of nine African Americans at a Charleston church. The white man charged with the murders posed with the flag on a website featuring a racist diatribe.
Georgia's reasons for denying the application by International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc were "frivolous" and designed to "shift their duty to uphold free speech to a court," the lawsuit said.
"We decided to take this case because it is such a clear violation of the speech rights of the group," said Debbie Seagraves, who was executive director of the Georgia ACLU when the suit was filed. "We can't let that slide."
In court documents, Georgia argues that letting the Klan participate would amount to the state's endorsement of the Klan’s beliefs, since road signs are a “quintessential method used by governments to communicate with the public.”
A county judge last year refused a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and the state appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which will hold oral arguments Thursday.
In 1997, Missouri rejected a similar request from a Klan chapter on the grounds that the group's membership rules discriminated against non-whites.
A federal appeals court ruled that requiring such a group to alter its membership requirements to qualify for the adopt-a-highway program would "censor its message and inhibit its constitutionally protected conduct."
The case is the State of Georgia et al. v. International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc. et al.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Walsh)