Ads About America’s Religious History Not Allowed on Public Buses?

December 15, 2023
Public Buses Reject Religious Ads | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in our nation’s capital refuses to display certain religious ads on public buses. They rejected ads from our client, WallBuilders, an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious and constitutional foundation of our nation.

This week, First Liberty filed a federal lawsuit against WMATA. We argue that its decision to exclude and censor the ads is wrong and unconstitutional.

It began last summer, when WallBuilders decided to launch an advertising campaign in D.C. It sought to put ads on the sides of Metro buses to publicize its organization. However, WMATA denied the request, calling it an ”issue ad.”

What’s in the ads? One features the well-known Henry Brueckner image of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. It poses the question: “CHRISTIAN?” with an invitation below in smaller text to visit to “find out about the faith of our Founders,” along with a QR code.

A similar advertisement depicts a well-known painting of the signing the U.S. Constitution, with identical language. The original painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

In an effort to receive more guidance on what advertisements are permissible under WMATA guidelines, WallBuilders requested further information – WMATA did not respond.

So, WallBuilders revised its ads in a way that might be acceptable to WMATA. Guessing that the word “Christian” was the reason for their rejection, WallBuilders removed that word and the reference to the “Faith of the Founders” and resubmitted them.

But, the revised ads were also rejected – with no elaboration.

WMATA’s actions are patently unconstitutional. The First Amendment requires government agencies to treat speech equally, regardless of the viewpoint of the speaker.

You may be surprised to learn that the ACLU teamed up with First Liberty on this case. Even though we’re sometimes at odds, both organizations understand just how dangerous WMATA’s policy is to free speech.

“The case against WMATA is a critical reminder of what’s at stake when government entities exercise selective censorship,” said Senior Counsel Arthur Spitzer at ACLU-D.C. “The First Amendment doesn’t play favorites; it ensures that all voices, regardless of their message, have the right to be heard,”

Together with the Steptoe law firm, we’re making the case that WMATA’s advertising restrictions violate the First Amendment.

WMATA is also inconsistent. It’s guidelines say it will prohibit ads “that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief.” But it has allowed ads for The Catholic University of America, the Jewish Film and Music Festival, even the controversial musical, The Book of Mormon.

“The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to express their point of view, religious or secular,” said First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys. “Rejecting a faith-based advertising banner by labeling it an ‘issue ad,’ while accepting other ads such as those promoting a ‘Social Justice School’ and ‘Earth Day’, is clearly hypocritical, discriminatory, and illegal. WMATA must support the freedoms provided in the First Amendment rather than silence Americans through censorship.”

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