DOJ Backs Church’s Bias Suit Against DC Metro

Administration says WMATA's rejection of Christmas ad is discriminatory

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The Trump administration will back the Catholic Church's lawsuit against the Washington, D.C., public transit agency for refusing to accept a Christmas advertisement featuring a manger scene.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is suing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) after the agency refused to accept an ad featuring silhouettes of shepherds en route to visit the infant Christ with the message "Find the Perfect Gift." The transit company rejected the ad because it violated standards against issue advocacy, leading the Catholic Church to sue over as an infringement on religious freedom. The Trump administration filed an amicus brief to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the agency engaged in "unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination."

"WMATA's guidelines permit messages which generally express commercial or charitable viewpoints, but exclude messages that express religious viewpoints," the Department of Justice argued in its brief. "WMATA's own statements make clear that it rejected the Archdiocese’s proposal based on the ad’s religious viewpoint, not on the ad’s general subject matter."

The agency has defended its standards, saying that they cut across all political and religious bounds. "WMATA has simply prohibited advertisements related to the religious half of Christmas, but not the secular half," it said in a court filing. A WMATA spokesman declined comment.

The policy began with a temporary suspension on issue ads beginning in 2015. WMATA found 58 percent of riders objected to advertisements that might spark a strong reaction or vandalism from those who object, singling out pro-life and religious advocacy in a report.

"Those opposed to running issues ads that cause strong reactions (such as religious extremism, right to life, and political advertising) also find fewer issues acceptable than those that favor running such ads," the report said. "After considering input from riders and other stakeholders, WMATA staff recommend continuing the prohibition of issue-oriented and advocacy advertising indefinitely, as it may provoke community discord and create concern about discriminatory statements on the system."

Lawyers from the Becket Fund, a non-profit law firm focusing on religious liberty, say that the policy has created discriminatory standards of its own. Religious organizations are not afforded the same opportunity to spread their message as corporate or secular organizations. A Becket Fund spokesman praised the Department of Justice for joining the case.

"It is a good thing that the Department of Justice thinks it's okay to mention that Christmas has a religious side. It is bad thing that they have to say something that ought to be completely obvious," he said. "The Metro has better things to do than play speech police."

The case is now pending before the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals.