By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Ku Klux Klan chapter sued the state of Georgia on Thursday for rejecting the white supremacist group's application to "adopt" a stretch of highway.
The KKK chapter, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, said Georgia's refusal to let it join an adopt-a-highway program, which typically involves volunteers picking up trash and planting trees along roads, violated its free speech rights.
The state's reasons for denying the application were "frivolous and pretextual" and were designed to "shift their duty to uphold free speech to a court instead," the lawsuit filed in Georgia state court said.
"We decided to take this case because it is such a clear violation of the speech rights of the group," said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. "We can't let that slide."
Georgia officials cited public safety concerns when they denied the group's application to join the program in June.
Road signs are typically installed by U.S. states to recognize participating organizations, and the Georgia Department of Transportation told the Klan chapter that erecting a sign with the Klan's name could lead to potential social unrest and distraction of drivers.
"A state road sign with 'KKK' on it would betray our values and would rightly offend the vast majority of Georgians," said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.
That might not be enough to keep the Klan out of the program. In 1997, the state of Missouri rejected a similar request from a Klan chapter on the grounds that the group's membership rules were racially discriminatory.
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 U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Missouri case. Following the court ruling, the Klan was allowed to adopt a stretch of Missouri highway and did so for a short period.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins)