The Washington, D.C. transit system – the Metro- recently rejected a Christmas ad for being too “Christian.”
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is suing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over its restrictive advertising guidelines, which the Catholic Church sees as a huge infringement on its right to exercise free speech. The ad had featured silhouettes of shepherds en-route to visit the infant Christ with the message that said “Find the Perfect Gift,” and was going to be placed on the exterior of city buses. Archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden had said the ad was designed to remind people that Christmas — the annual celebration of Christ’s birth—is a religious holiday.
“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,” McFadden had stated in a statement.
The suit is the latest controversy for the embattled transit agency, which is in charge of operating the second busiest subway system in the country. In 2016, the Federal Transit Administration had threatened to shutter its rail lines if the agency did not take “urgent action” to address safety issues. The threat had spurred a year-long update to the system that had cost a huge $133 million and had also disrupted commutes through 2016 and parts of 2017. An agency spokesman had said in a statement that the rejection is in line with its advertising guidelines, which apply to all its entities no matter what their religion.
“WMATA has changed its advertising policy to prohibit issue-oriented advertising, including political, religious and advocacy advertising,” an agency spokeswoman had said. “The ad in question was declined because it is prohibited by WMATA’s current advertising guidelines.”
The Archdiocese attorney Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis LLP had said that the system’s prohibition on advertising from religious entities represented a huge discriminatory litmus test. He said that the government should not allow for robust speeches on its advertising platforms while at the same time denying access to certain entities over their messaging. The suit seeks injunctive relief for the archdiocese to advertise in the system and challenges WMATA to revise its guidelines.
“WMATA’s rejection of the Archdiocese’s speech amounts to a violation of the First Amendment, plain and simple,” Clement said in a statement. “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.”
“Those opposed to running issues ads that cause strong reactions (such as religious extremism, right to life and political advertising) also find fewer issues acceptable than those that favor running such ads,” WMATA said in a report.
The agency claims that its prohibition on religious speech was done in an attempt to keep from “discrimination.”