The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was within its rights to ban the Archdiocese of Washington’s religious-themed advertisements, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Tuesday.
In November 2015, WMATA issued 14 new guidelines for acceptable advertisements on its busses and trains. Guideline 12 expressly prohibited “advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief.” These new guidelines came out after someone attempted to purchase an advertisement featuring an image of Muhammad.
This past December, WMATA rejected a bus advertisement from the Washington archdiocese that directed people to a website for its “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign. The website contains Mass time information, basic information about Christmas and Advent traditions, and had links for various Catholic charitable organizations. The ads were rejected due to their religious content.
The court initially sided with WMATA in the ban, and the Court of Appeals heard the case in March. Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is now nominated for the Supreme Court, appeared to be in favor of the Archdiocese during arguments.
Kavanaugh did not participate in Tuesday’s decision due to his nomination.
In the July 31 decision, Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote that “The Archdiocese has not shown … that WMATA is impermissibly suppressing its viewpoint on an otherwise permitted subject,” and that any claim of discrimination “is based on hypothesis.”
“Were the Archdiocese to prevail, WMATA (and other transit systems) would have to accept all types of advertisements to maintain viewpoint neutrality, including ads criticizing and disparaging religion and religious tenets or practices.”
Judge Robert L. Wilkins concurred with Rogers’ decision, and added that the policy did not infringe on the First Amendment because “It does not take sides; it restricts all speech on the topic equally, without discriminating within the defined category.”
The archdiocese may pursue another appeal against the policy.
“The Archdiocese of Washington is disappointed by today’s federal appeals court ruling, and we are reviewing the decision and opinions to determine our next steps,” Ed McFadden, secretary for communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, told CNA in a statement.
“Today, however, is a reminder that freedom of religion and expression in the public square should never be taken for granted, and we will continue to defend those rights at every opportunity.”
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, took issue with the Court’s claim that WMATA “does not take sides,” saying in a statement that this was “laughable.”
Instead, McGuire believes that the fedrally-funded metro system has “taken the side of restricting any and all religious speech,” which is in violation of the First Amendment.
“Tinder (a dating/hookup app) and Blue Apron (a meal service) can buy ads, but the Catholic Church cannot,” said McGuire.
“It’s a textbook case of discrimination; it sends the clear message that secular speech is welcome in the public, but religious speech is offensive and should be barred.”