With Christmas less than a month away, the Archdiocese of Washington is encouraging consumers to “find the perfect gift” by attending church, seeking spiritual gifts and serving the poor. But the transit agency in the nation’s capital is not having it, banning the ads from Metro buses because they contain religious content. Archdiocesan officials responded on Tuesday by announcing that it had filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, arguing that their First Amendment rights have been violated and hoping that an injunction will allow them to purchase ads on dozens of city buses, as they have in previous years.
In its complaint, the archdiocese says that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority rejected an ad showing a group of shepherds looking up to the stars, along with the words “Find the perfect gift,” a URL and the hashtag #FindThePerfectGift.
“We think there’s a First Amendment issue here,” Ed McFadden, the archdiocese’s secretary for communications told America.
He said the ad was submitted in late October to the agency that manages W.M.A.T.A. advertisements, Outfront Media, which rejected it within 24 hours. On its website, Outfront boasts that advertisers can “influence the nation's leaders” with advertising that “catches the attention of commuters—from Capitol Hill to the White House and the hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the region.” According to the transit agency, more than $20 million in revenue is collected each year through advertising.
Rules posted on the W.M.A.T.A. website include: “Advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief are prohibited.” That policy dates back to 2015, when a group with anti-Muslim views, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, purchased a set of ads on the D.C. transit system that contained an image of the prophet Mohammed, meant to be offensive to some Muslims.
Mr. McFadden said the archdiocese accepts that there should be standards about which kinds of advertising are acceptable. He also said the archdiocese was willing to work with Outfront Media to make the ad acceptable, but added there was “not much more we could have done, short of making it a blank ad.”
There was “not much more we could have done, short of making it a blank ad.”
According to the lawsuit, a representative from Outfront told the archdiocese that “if the advertisement had a commercial purpose, such as selling goods or services, then the advertisement would be more likely to comply with WMATA’s guidelines.” A letter sent to the archdiocese by lawyers representing Outfront said the ad was rejected because “it depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.” The ad contains no cross or overtly religious symbols, but it does include an illustration of sheep and shepherds, images associated with the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Another company, Clear Channel Communications, handles advertising for bus shelters, and the archdiocese has purchased ad space on them. Those advertisements contain more explicit religious themes, including a quote from the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy.”
Still, the archdiocese contends that the bus ads are essential to the campaign’s mission.
“Although all of the campaign’s distribution channels are helpful for spreading the Archdiocese’s message, there is no medium that will reach the Archdiocese’s broad audience as consistently or effectively as bus advertising,” the complaint reads. “In terms of visibility, reach, and frequency, no other media type provides a substitute for bus advertising in the metropolitan area, especially with regard to the audience the Archdiocese most wants to reach with the ‘Find the Perfect Gift’ campaign.”
In addition to its Christmas campaign, the archdiocese has used Metro bus advertising in the past to promote a Lenten reconciliation campaign and for papal visits to Washington in 2008 and 2015.
The archdiocese has used Metro bus advertising in the past to promote a Lenten reconciliation campaign and for papal visits to Washington in 2008 and 2015.
The D.C. archdiocese is not the only organization challenging Metro’s advertising restrictions.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties filed a suit after the agency rejected one of their ads promoting the First Amendment. They were joined in the suit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, by a provider of abortions and by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, all of whom also had ads rejected by the transit agency.
According to a press release from the A.C.L.U., “parts of the agency’s ad policies violate the First Amendment by discriminating against particular ads and advertisers deemed controversial by WMATA officials.” The complaint highlights three parts of the agency’s advertising policy, but it does not address the rule banning religious-themed ads.
The archdiocese has scuffled with the W.M.A.T.A. in the past. In 2001, the group now known as Catholics for Choice purchased a number of ads on bus shelters and in subway cars expressing opposition to the church’s stance against condoms. Launched to commemorate World AIDS Day, the ads read, “Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die,” and they urged readers to “Join the Global Campaign to End the Bishops’ Ban on Condoms.”
The archdiocese called the ads “false and misleading,” according to The Washington Post, arguing that that the church does not have the authority to “ban” condoms. The archdiocese did not ask the transit agency to pull the ads but said the ads should not have been accepted. According to the Post, Metro officials later said the condom ads provoked the “single largest negative response” in the transit system’s history.
As for the Christmas ads, the archdiocese says it hopes the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., will issue an injunction and order W.M.A.T.A. to accept the ads for this Advent, which begins Dec. 3.
The message of the ads, the archdiocese contends, is not all that controversial. “The Archdiocese wishes to encourage our society to help feed, clothe, and care for our most vulnerable neighbors, and to share our blessings, and welcome all who wish to hear the Good News,” Susan Timoney, the archdiocese’s secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns, said in a statement.