No relief for D.C. archdiocese seeking to promote Christmas ads on city buses

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A federal judge refused to grant an emergency injunction that would have allowed the Archdiocese of Washington to run ads on the sides of city buses encouraging people to “find the perfect gift” this holiday season.

In a ruling signed Dec. 8, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote that it is unlikely church officials would be able to prove that their constitutional rights were being violated by a D.C. Metro policy that prohibits religious advertising. 

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Early Tuesday, the archdiocese said in a press release that it is appealing the judge’s ruling.

A spokesman for the archdiocese compared the ad campaign to the message of a beloved Christmas television classic.

“In ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ he asks, ‘Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?’ Linus responds, ‘Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.’ That is what the archdiocese wants to do with the www.FindthePerfectGift.org ad campaign,” Ed McFadden, the archdiocese’s secretary for communications, said in a statement. “In a society concerned more with what’s under the tree, and where the birth of Jesus is treated as an intrusive element to the season, we simply want to share the real Christmas story, the full joy of Christmas, with our neighbors and share the Christmas spirit with those in need.”  

Last month, the Archdiocese of Washington filed a suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, arguing that a 2015 rule prohibiting religious ads was unconstitutional.

Church officials filed the lawsuit after the transit agency rejected ads that encourage people to “find the perfect gift” this Christmas season by pointing them to a website that provides information about Advent, ways to volunteer and information about Catholicism. The archdiocese contended that the ad, which does not contain explicit religious text or images, did not violate Metro’s guidelines.

But the judge disagreed, writing that the issue is about whether Metro’s policy is constitutional, not “whether the message has value, or whether the Court anticipates that it will be well-received or it will offend,” adding that “the applicable constitutional principles are quite clear.”

A federal judge ruled that it is unlikely church officials would be able to prove that their constitutional rights were being violated.

“Emergency injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded based on a substantial showing that the plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits of the claims in its lawsuit, so the Court must determine at this early stage whether plaintiff is likely to be able to prove that its constitutional or statutory rights are being violated,” the judge wrote. “[The] plaintiff cannot carry that burden.”

In a statement following the judge’s ruling, Mr. McFadden expressed frustration with the ruling.

“We are disappointed that the federal court denied our emergency request for an injunction to run our ‘Find the Perfect Gift’ Advent ad campaign,” Mr. McFadden said. “While this preliminary ruling that there should be no room made for us on WMATA buses is disappointing, we will continue in the coming days to pursue and defend our right to share the important message of Christmas in the public square.”

As part of its argument, the archdiocese said that because the agency accepted ads from a yoga studio and the Salvation Army, that it should also accept ads from the church.

But the judge said that while the Salvation Army is a religious organization, “the inquiry is whether the advertisements promote religion. The Salvation Army advertisement seeks charitable contributions and nothing more.”

“The Red Kettle may be a well-known symbol of the season, but there is nothing religious about it,” Judge Berman Jackson continued. “While charitable giving is a fundamental tenet of many faiths, the advertisement does not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage.”

As for the yoga argument, the judge wrote, “no matter what the religious origins of yoga may have been, or to what extent Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other spiritual elements remain incorporated in yoga practice in the United States, religion is not what is being offered at CorePower Yoga.”

“It is about as distant from the ancient Indian religious traditions that gave rise to yoga as Black Friday at Best Buy is from Bethlehem,” she said.

This story has been updated.

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Tim Donovan
9 months 2 weeks ago

I think that this judge's decision doesn't respect freedom of speech which is such a prized part of our constitutional rights. The advertisement by the Washington Archdiocese is such an innocuous, indeed bland expression of religious belief. Although the Salvation Army's advertisement is primarily about giving to charity, as even the judge notes, the Salvation Army is a church, and I think it's offensive for her to downplay the religious significance of their Christian work.

Tim O'Leary
9 months 2 weeks ago

Something is deeply wrong in America when one can promote only the commercialization of Christmas, but not its meaning. Secular America is truly anti-Christ!

Anne Danielson
9 months 2 weeks ago

“While charitable giving is a fundamental tenet of many faiths, the advertisement does not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage.”

Judge Jackson is simply mistaken. The First Amendment does not state only that which does "not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage" shall be permissible in the public square.

"Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
First Amendment | Constitution | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute

https://kids-clerk.house.gov/grade-school/lesson.html?intID=17

In no way, shape, or form does this advertisement establish a law, "respecting an establishment of religion", thus by denying the D.C. Archdiocese's promotion of Christmas ads on city buses, Judge Jackson is promoting "the prohibiting of the free exercise" of religion and witness to our Catholic Faith, of "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble", during "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year".

Anne Danielson
9 months 2 weeks ago

“While charitable giving is a fundamental tenet of many faiths, the advertisement does not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage.”

Judge Jackson is simply mistaken. The First Amendment does not state only that which does "not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage" shall be permissible in the public square.

"Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
First Amendment | Constitution | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute

https://kids-clerk.house.gov/grade-school/lesson.html?intID=17

In no way, shape, or form does this advertisement establish a law, "respecting an establishment of religion", thus by denying the D.C. Archdiocese's promotion of Christmas ads on city buses, Judge Jackson is promoting "the prohibiting of the free exercise" of religion and witness to our Catholic Faith, of "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble", during "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year".

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