The Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. is arguing that freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.
On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Washington filed a legal action in federal court against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) after it refused to run ads for the archdiocese’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” Christmas initiative on D.C. public buses. In the past, many in the media have unabashedly attacked Christmas – so time will tell how they cover this latest case.
The archdiocese represents more than 620,000 Catholics, 139 parishes and 95 Catholic schools in Washington, D.C. and five Maryland counties.
Reading “Find the Perfect Gift,” the ad depicts the silhouettes of shepherds with their sheep amidst a starry night. The advertisement directs readers to the website FindThePerfectGift.org with the Twitter hashtag, “PerfectGift.”
According to the archdiocese complaint, the Perfect Gift campaign aims to “share a simple message of hope, welcoming all to Christmas Mass or in joining in public service to help the most vulnerable in our community during the liturgical season of Advent.” To accomplish that, the website provides Mass times and venues for giving to those in need.
But that didn’t fit with WMATA’s guidelines.
“WMATA contends that it now prohibits all non-commercial advertising, including any speech that purportedly promotes a religion, religious practice, or belief,” the complaint added. “But the First Amendment, with its guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion, prevents the government from denying speech on the unreasonable, arbitrary, and discriminatory grounds put forward by WMATA.”
The complaint also stressed that the archdiocese had placed religious advertisements on WMATA’s public buses in the past, as recently as 2015, to promote other campaigns like encouraging confession during Lent, the season preceding Easter.
Furthermore, WMATA ran controversial ads before Christmas in 2008 asking “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.” They were sponsored by The American Humanist Association. At the time, WMATA Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein reasoned that the “agency accepts ads that aren't obscene or pornographic.”
But in 2015, D.C. metro began banning “issue-oriented” ads after a group submitted a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed, a representation which Muslims consider offensive. WMATA’s new policy has caused lawsuits, including from the ACLU.
Ed McFadden, communications secretary for the Archdiocese of Washington, accused WMATA of “play[ing] the Grinch” for prohibiting this latest campaign.
In his legal declaration, he revealed that outside counsel for WMATA sent a Nov. 20 letter declaring that the ad “is prohibited by [WMATA advertising] Guideline 12 because it depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.”
He also outlined how Jack Costello, who represented a third-party vendor that sells advertising spaces for WMATA, told the archdiocese said that “if the advertisement had an explicitly commercial objective, such as selling tickets, then it might more likely to comply with WMATA’s guidelines.”
But because the ad “referred” without “asking for business,” WMATA considered it “impermissible.”
Like McFadden, Susan Timoney, secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns secretary for the Archdiocese also filed a declaration.