The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Tuesday after WMATA rejected their advertisement for an initiative urging the public to consider the spiritual side of the Christmas season by learning about Advent and other Catholic Christmas traditions. The advertisement itself only depicts shepherds under a starry night and the simple slogan “Find the Perfect Gift.”
WMATA said on November 20th that the ad violated their policy prohibiting “all non-commercial advertising, including any speech that purportedly promotes a religion, religious practice, or belief,” because “it depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion,” according to the Archdiocese’s complaint, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief in D.C. Court.
The archdiocese argues that WMATA’s policy violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.
They point out that WMATA has allowed the archdiocese to advertise in the past including a Spring 2015 campaign “highlighting the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the liturgical season of Lent. This campaign, ‘The Light Is On For You,’ was remarkably successful for the Archdiocese (and lucrative for WMATA), with advertisements on the backs of 85 buses throughout the metropolitan area.”
However, in November of 2015, WMATA enacted an extended ban on issue-oriented advertising prohibiting “[a]dvertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief.”
“There are no formal regulations to direct the implementation or interpretation of this ban,” the complaint points out, “nor is there any published guidance about what speech is forbidden according to this guideline. The enforcement of this ban is left entirely to the discretion of WMATA staff under the direction of Defendant Wiedefeld.”
“The ban has been applied in an arbitrary and unreasonable manner,” they add. “WMATA has denied the Archdiocese’s ‘Find the Perfect Gift’ advertisements, which contain no explicit references to religion, religious practice, or belief. At the same time, WMATA accepts advertisements that promote yoga practices as a mechanism to ‘take you on an inner journey of self-discovery’ and to lead to the ‘acknowledgment of one soul to another.’”
“As the papers filed in Court today make clear,” Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, who is serving as counsel to the Archdiocese in this case, commented, “WMATA’s rejection of the Archdiocese’s speech amounts to a violation of the First Amendment, plain and simple. We are bringing this complaint to vindicate the basic principle that the government may not allow a wide variety of speech in a forum and then turn around and deny the Archdiocese access because of the religious nature of its speech.”
“The rejected ad conveys a simple message of hope, and an invitation to participate in the Christmas season. Yet citing its guidelines, WMATA’s legal counsel said the ad ‘depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion,’” Ed McFadden, Secretary for Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington commented. “To borrow from a favorite Christmas story, under WMATA’s guidelines, if the ads are about packages, boxes or bags … if Christmas comes from a store … then it seems WMATA approves. But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch.”
WMATA is already facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union filed in August over their refusal to run ads for the ACLU, an abortion clinic, Milo Yiannopoulos’s book, and PETA due to their updated policy against issue-oriented advertising.