The U.S. Justice Department has sided with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., in a case against local censorship of religious advertising. Last fall, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) rejected the archdiocese’s Christmas ad, which depicted shepherds following the star of Bethlehem and included the message: “Find the perfect gift.” The ad also listed the web address for a site with information about the archdiocese’s Christmas events and the phrase, “Jesus is the perfect gift.”
The transit authority said it does not allow any ads promoting religion, but the Justice Department argued it can’t use that policy to justify viewpoint discrimination. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week, the department said because the transit authority accepts other ads related to Christmas, including those encouraging charitable giving, it cannot reject the archdiocese’s ads.
“Just as a university cannot subsidize secular speech on a given topic while refusing to subsidize religious speech on the same topic, WMATA cannot accept a secular Christmas advertisement encouraging charitable giving while rejecting religious Christmas ads that do the same,” the brief stated. In essence, the department argued, the transit authority is turning the Constitution on its head by favoring commercial speech, including ads for Christmas gifts, over First Amendment–protected free speech.
Famed Supreme Court litigator Paul Clement is representing the archdiocese. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the transit authority, and the church’s appeal is pending with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. —Lynde Langdon