Washington archdiocese's bus ad case heard by appeals court

By Christine Rousselle

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Metro ad. Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Washington.

The Archdiocese of Washington was in court on Monday, arguing that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ban on any religious-themed advertisements is unconstitutional.
The case was brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and argued March 26.

In October 2017, the WMATA rejected a series of ads from the archdiocese which featured a biblical scene and a message about attending Mass and donating to charity. The ads were intended to run during the Christmas season. The archdiocese filed suit in late November, alleging discrimination.

The ads read “Find the Perfect Gift,” and contained a link to a website containing content about Mass times and opportunities for charities. The website also stated that “JESUS is the perfect gift.”

In 2015, WMATA had banned all advertisements that concerned religion, including those both promoting or condemning a particular faith. This ban came after a group attempted to place anti-Muslim advertisements on busses and subway cars.

Despite the supposed ban on religious-themed advertisements, WMATA displayed an advertisement for the Salvation Army after it rejected the Archdiocese of Washington’s advertisements. The Salvation Army is an ecclesial community which has a large charity drive during the Christmas season.

Previously, a district court sided with WMATA and denied the archdiocese's request for an injunction, saying the case would not likely succeedd on religious freedom or free speech grounds.

“The Archdiocese has consistently sought to protect and defend our constitutional right of free speech and expression of our faith in the public square,” said Ed McFadden, secretary of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“We were pleased that our legal team had the opportunity to do just that in the appeals court, and are grateful for the court’s consideration of the matter.”

The Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the Archdiocese of Washington in January.

“WMATA’s policy constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The policy directly contravenes Supreme Court precedents that preclude the government from disfavoring speech from a religious perspective,” wrote the Department of Justice.

“The result is that messages encouraging religious exercise—a right also protected by the First Amendment—are singled out as unacceptable.”

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