Is the Grinch running the Washington, D.C. transit system? That could be a fair question considering a recent ban on an uplifting holiday ad intended for buses.
Last month, the Archdiocese of Washington commemorated 70 years since its original founding in 1947. However, their celebration turned sour when District of Columbia public transit authorities blatantly violated the Catholic institution’s religious freedoms.
Under the guise of civic harmony, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) prohibited religiously themed advertisements from being displayed on public buses. For months, the Archdiocese developed its Advent holiday campaign and intentionally decided to advertise on public buses, as that medium would reach a broader audience in the community.
The ad depicts a group of shepherds under a bright start with the inviting message “Find the Perfect Gift.” The transit authority apparently found the ad so threatening to the public order that commuters caught in the snarl of everyday traffic had to be protected from its message of hope and Christian charity.
The Archdiocese’s attorneys quickly responded by filing a complaint against WMATA, noting that by rejecting the ads the Archdiocese “will suffer irreparable harm to its constitutional and statutory rights.” They asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. that WMATA recognize its rejection of the ads as unconstitutional and promptly amend its policies to allow the Archdiocese’s Advent holiday campaign.
First Liberty also denounced WMATA’s action against the Archdiocese. On December 1, First Liberty, along with attorneys from the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in federal court supporting the Archdiocese’s complaint, calling WMATA’s ban an “unlawful imposition on the Archdiocese’s religious liberties under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.”
RELIGIOUS ADS, A PUBLIC SAFETY CONCERN?
According to First Liberty Institute attorneys, WMATA’s egregious rejection of the Archdiocese’s ad is based on the flawed assumption that religious ads would trigger public chaos or create a security threat in the transit system.
The Archdiocese’s ad contains only a whisper of religiosity, displaying a few shepherds under a starry night with a very indirect “hash-tag” about Christ being the reason for the season. Nevertheless, the Archdiocese is still entitled by law to advertise on WMATA buses, even if its holiday ads display religious content.
In essence, WMATA’s officials have camouflaged a religious freedom violation with an exaggerated claim that a mildly religious ad – with no distasteful language – would somehow cause public turmoil.
In fact, the Archdiocese’s lawyers note, “WMATA also routinely accepts advertisements that refer to Christmas in the context of promoting commercialism or encouraging consumers to buy more goods and services.” In effect, any other business, department store or organization could have a holiday-based campaign as long as it had a consumerist theme attached to it.
When responding to the Archdiocese, WMATA even admitted that an advertisement with the same image and words would probably be approved, if it were promoting a commercial service or product, instead of a religious perspective.
ARCHDIOCESE’S ADVENT CAMPAIGN REJECTED BECAUSE OF RELIGIOUS CONTENT
Legal precedent requires that government agencies – including WMATA – remain neutral toward religion. Public transit systems must adhere to that standard when drafting and enforcing their guidelines. As they stand today, WMATA’s guidelines manifest the discriminatory purpose of penalizing religious beliefs, and have the effect of regulating or prohibiting conduct because it is religiously motivated.
Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty, explains, “WMATA prohibited the Archdiocese’s advertisement not because it referred to Christmas – as an advertisement that displayed presents under a Christmas tree would be permitted if placed by Macy’s – but because it sought to convey a religious viewpoint message emphasizing that Christ is the reason for the season. That is a violation of the First Amendment.”
The transit authority’s hostility against religion – and the Archdiocese – is evident in that its advertising guidelines target religious groups intentionally.
WMATA’S TWO HALVES OF CHRISTMAS
Responding to the Archdiocese’s complaint, WMATA claimed the right to exclude religious messages from appearing in transit advertisements. Attorneys for the public transit authority argued that by rejecting all religions from appearing on their vehicles, WMATA acted neutrally toward religion.
Further, WMATA argued that there are two halves of Christmas: “a religious and ‘secular half.’” While some commercial advertisements reference symbols of Christmas like reindeer, Christmas trees, and the like, those symbols largely concern the secular half of the holiday. “Here, WMATA has simply prohibited advertisements related to the subject of the religious half of Christmas, but not the secular half,” argues WMATA in its brief. “That is not viewpoint discrimination within the meaning of [U.S. Supreme Court precedent].”
According to WMATA, secular symbols of Christmas are welcome on their buses, but religious messages are forbidden. “WMATA’s position is so restrictive,” explains Hiram Sasser, General Counsel of First Liberty Institute, “that the remarks of the President of the United States from the lighting of the National Christmas Tree could not be quoted on the side of a DC MetroBus.”
WMATA advertising policies contradict basic constitutional principles because they actively show contempt toward religious stances. This is why First Liberty considers it an utmost priority to stand alongside the Archdiocese and demand that WMATA revise its policies to allow religious content in Washington, D.C.’s public transit system.
Amicus brief filed on behalf of The Archdiocese of Washington D.C.
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