Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington | Cases | First Liberty

Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Bans Religious Speech

In October of 2017, the Archdiocese of Washington contacted the third-party vendor that markets WMATA’s advertising space and asked to purchase space from WMATA for its “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign. WMATA’s advertising space marketer informed the Archdiocese that it did not comply with WMATA advertising guidelines and denied the Archdiocese’s advertisement request.

The Archdiocese filed suit against WMATA in the U.S. District Court for the District of D.C. alleging that WMATA’s refusal to run the advertisement violates the Constitution and federal law by discriminating against the religious point of view of the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese requested a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would allow its advertising campaign to begin on December 3rd, the first day of the liturgical season of Advent.

First Liberty Legal Action

First Liberty Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), represented by Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit supporting the Archdiocese of Washington’s complaint against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

“WMATA prohibited the Archdiocese’s advertisement not because it referred to Christmas, but because it sought to convey a religious viewpoint message emphasizing that Christ is the reason for the season,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel to First Liberty. “What’s really shocking is that WMATA, in this case, said there were ‘two halves’ of Christmas, the religious half and the secular half. But only messages relating to the ‘secular half’ were welcome on their buses. Evidently, WMATA accepts Christmas advertisements about Santa Claus, but rejects the nativity; it accepts the three French hens, but not three wise men.”

The District Court denied the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction requests before Christmas, prompting the Archdiocese to file an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit including an emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal that would allow the advertising campaign to run before the 2017 Advent season concluded. Just five days before Christmas, the Court of Appeals declined to grant the injunction, effectively eliminating the opportunity for the advertisements to run during the Christmas season.

FLI and EPPC filed a joint amicus brief in January of 2018, arguing that the WMATA’s advertising guidelines discriminated against the Archdiocese’s religious viewpoint. Oral arguments took place on March 26, 2018.

“When the government rejects a message just because it conveys a religious point of view, it violates the First Amendment,” Shackelford says. “Censoring all religious viewpoints should be an obvious violation of the First Amendment.”

However, it was not obvious to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Hiram Sasser, General Counsel for First Liberty Institute remarked on the decision, “This decision gives government the ability to ban religious speech as long as all religions are banned. The Supreme Court has never approved of a ‘separate but equal’ treatment of religious speech. The First Amendment was established to protect varying religious opinions, not censor them.”

Press Release
For Immediate Release: January 23, 2018
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org, Direct: 972-941-4453

D.C. Metro to Archdiocese: You Can’t Ride Our Bus
First Liberty Institute files brief defending a church’s right to express its beliefs in public


WASHINGTON, DC—First Liberty Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), represented by Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia supporting the Archdiocese of Washington’s complaint against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Before Christmas, WMATA banned an advertisement from the Archdiocese of Washington depicting images of shepherds and the URL “FindThePerfectGift.org” on its metro trains and buses. The brief argues WMATA violated the U.S. Constitution.

“WMATA prohibited the Archdiocese’s advertisement not because it referred to Christmas, but because it sought to convey a religious viewpoint message emphasizing that Christ is the reason for the season,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel to First Liberty. “What’s really shocking is that WMATA in this case said there were ‘two halves’ of Christmas, the religious half and the secular half. But only messages relating to the ‘secular half’ were welcome on their buses. Evidently, WMATA can now accept Christmas advertisements about Santa Clause, but rejects the nativity; it accepts the three French hens, but not three wise men.”

WMATA changed its advertising guidelines in 2015 to prohibit ads promoting religious or political beliefs. The guidelines state: “Advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief are prohibited.”

“When the government rejects a message just because it conveys a religious point of view, it violates the First Amendment,” Shackelford says. “Censoring all religious viewpoints should be an obvious violation of the First Amendment.”

Read the entire brief here.

EPPC is a nonprofit research institution dedicated to defending American ideals and to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy. First Liberty is a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

To download a copy of this press release, click here.

Archdiocese of Washington – 2017 Holiday Ad

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