The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington D.C. has filed a lawsuit against the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority for rejecting an ad campaign to promote “spiritual giving” over materialism at Christmas. WMATA rejected the image of shepherds, stars, and sheep by claiming that it promotes religion and thus violates the transit system’s rules. The archdiocese has had a similar ad campaign on WMATA buses and trains for many years. The ad does not depict a Nativity scene, Jesus Christ, or a cross.
In statements provided to a court, the archdiocese said that the purpose of the “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign is to encourage people to give to the needy, and attend mass at Christmas.
Ed McFadden, secretary for communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, told the Washington Examiner, “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 has allowed ads promoting the Salvation Army (a Christian church), and yoga -- a form of Hindu spiritualism.
A spokespersons for WMTA said in a statement that it changed its policy in 2015. Lawyers for the archdiocese believe that the First Amendment rights of the Church are being infringed.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging that WMATA’s advertising guidelines violated free speech. Critics assert that the policies are vague. Plaintiffs in that suit include the ACLU, Carafem, Milo Worldwide LLC, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Carafem is an abortion provider. Milo Worldwide LLC is a corporation through which activist/journalist Milo Yiannopoulous operates. PETA is an animal rights organization.
The suit said WMATA rejected the following ads: an ACLU ad that displays the text of the First Amendment in multiple languages; an ad by Carafem advertising a “10-Week-After-Pill;” PETA ads suggesting people go vegan; and an ad for Yiannopoulous’ book “Dangerous.” Some of the ads sparked complaints.
ACLU legal director for the District of Columbia Arthur Spitzer told WTOP this year: “I think it’s an indefensible policy to say that as soon as someone complains about an advertisement, we’re going to take it down.” Spitzer noted that irony that WMATA banned a display of the text of the First Amendment: “Metro is a government agency subject to the First Amendment,” Spitzer said.
In May 2015, WMATA banned issue-oriented advertising after the pro-Israel group American Freedom Defense Initiative submitted ads for several train stations. The transit agency then amended its advertising guidelines to its current status in November 2015.
Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.