ATLANTA -- A Ku Klux Klan group in Georgia lost its bid Tuesday to join the state's highway cleanup program, but a legal challenge to the decision may be looming. Similar groups in other states have won legal battles after initially being turned down for highway cleanup programs.

The International Keystone Knights of the KKK in Union County applied last month to the "Adopt-A-Highway" program, hoping to clean up along part of Route 515 in the Appalachian Mountains. The state program enlists civic groups, companies and other volunteers to pick up trash, and the groups are recognized with a sign along the road they adopt.

Transportation Department officials met with lawyers from the state Attorney General's Office on Monday and also consulted with Gov. Nathan Deal. The agency said Tuesday it would deny the KKK group's application, adding that the program is aimed at "civic-minded organizations in good standing."

"Participation in the program should not detract from its worthwhile purpose," the department's statement reads. "Promoting an organization with a history of inciting civil disturbance and social unrest would present a grave concern to the department. Issuing this permit would have the potential to negatively impact the quality of life, commerce and economic development of Union County and all of Georgia."

The statement went on to explain that motorists who drive past signs promoting the KKK or who see members picking up trash could be distracted – creating a safety issue – and that the section of highway the group wanted to adopt is ineligible because of its 55 mph speed limit.

The group said they wanted to preserve the area's scenic beauty. Harley Hanson, a member of the KKK group whose wife sent the application, said Tuesday that the International Keystone Knights' national leadership is considering legal action.

"If this does go into a litigation situation, the state really cannot afford to be wasting the money on something based on somebody else's beliefs," Hanson said in a phone interview. "It's saddening, really."

The Transportation Department sent a letter to the applicant, April Chambers, explaining the agency's decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 rejected Missouri's attempt to turn down a controversial group's application, saying membership in the program cannot be denied because of a group's political beliefs. In Kentucky, the transportation department accepted a white-separatist group's contract to participate in the state's highway cleanup program, fearing an unsuccessful legal battle.

An emailed request for comment from the Attorney General's Office on Tuesday was not immediately returned.

Hanson insisted the group's aim was to beautify the highway, not to seek attention. He also said the move might help recast the image of the Klan beyond its racist and violent past.

"We can't change what happened, but we can still work for a better tomorrow," Hanson said, adding that the group does food drives and has collected toys for Christmas. "It was not just to warn people, `Hey, the KKK lives next door,' but to do some good for the community."

Critics balked at the move as little more than an offensive publicity stunt. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who raised objections to the application, hailed the DOT decision as the right thing to do.

"They make the point we've been making: This is not a group that really qualifies as a civic organization," said Brooks, a civil rights activist who experienced Klan violence in the segregated South. "It's a terrorist organization. This is the right decision, and I commend the Department of Transportation for reaching a decision in due speed."

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