The Catholic Archdiocese fights for its First Amendment rights
The proposed bus advertisement seemed innocuous enough. The words “Find the Perfect Gift” were superimposed on a scene featuring shepherds and sheep silhouetted under a starlit night.
Nonetheless, the ad, designed to promote the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s annual initiative to promote spiritual rather than material gifts, will not appear on buses this year.
Washington, D.C.’s bus and subway authority (WMATA) rejected it on the grounds that it “depicts a religious scene and thus promotes religion.” The Archdiocese is fighting back with a legal challenge that says the rejection of the ad is a violation of the First Amendment.
WMATA’s decision follows a 2015 decision by its board to deny space to “issue-oriented advertising “ including ads that “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief.”
“The rejected ad conveys a simple message of hope, and an invitation to participate in the Christmas season,” said Ed McFadden, Secretary for Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.
“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,” McFadden added.
In its complaint, the Archdiocese of Washington argued that even though the “Find the Perfect Gift” ad contains no explicit references to religion, it was rejected while other arguably religious ads were allowed.
Ads from the openly religious Salvation Army were given the green light, for example, along with ads promoting yoga as a way to “take you on an inner journey or self-discovery” and lead to the “acknowledgment of one soul to another.”
The Archdiocese went a step further and argued that in addition to being inequitably administered, the ban on religious ads “established a regime that is hostile to religion.”
Allowing ads that refer to Christmas in the “context of promoting commercialism or encouraging consumers to buy more goods and services,” in effect, establishes commercialism as an acceptable form of speech to the exclusion of speech that may reflect religious beliefs, the Archdiocese argued.
“The ban effectively silences any viewpoint that might challenge commercialism or consumerism or attempt to emphasize the religious reason for the season,” read the complaint, in a legal action that may, in the end, help establish religious speech as speech that is protected under the Constitution.