Christmas Ads on DC Buses Rejected by Judge

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge on Friday rejected the Archdiocese of Washington’s request that she force the D.C. regional transit authority to post its Christmas advertisements on its buses.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson affirmed the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s right to ban advertising that either promotes or opposes “any religion, religious practice or belief.”

As recounted in Berman’s ruling, the archdiocese had sought to post ads on Metro buses that depict a starry night with a nativity-like scene, encouraging individuals to return to church during the Christmas season to “find the perfect gift.”

The advertisement contains a link to a website with information about Mass schedules and religious holiday traditions, which transit authority said violates its prohibition on religious, political and advocacy advertising.

The archdiocese said it tried to meet with the authority to discuss its concerns, but that those requests for a meeting were repeatedly ignored. On Nov. 30, the archdiocese sued, asking the court to move swiftly so that the ads could be displayed in time for the Catholic Advent season preceding Christmas.

Among other things, the archdiocese argued it had no problem purchasing advertising space from Clear Channel Outdoor, which maintains bus shelters throughout the D.C. metro area, but that the transit authority flatly rejected its ads in violation of the First Amendment.

At a hearing before Judge Jackson on Tuesday, attorneys for the archdiocese argued the transit authority inconsistently applied its prohibition, and routinely carries advertisements for the Salvation Army and even a Yoga school.

But Judge Jackson was unmoved by that argument. “None of the advertisements plaintiff highlights … ‘promote or oppose any religion,’” she wrote. “While the Salvation Army is a Christian organization, and its charitable efforts, like those of the archdiocese and other religious organizations, may be motivated in some measure by religious beliefs, the ads it chose to display on the buses do not promote or advance religion.”

“Given [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] concerns about the risks posed by issue-oriented ads, including ads promoting or opposing religion, its decision was reasonable,” Jackson wrote. “The regulation is reasonably aligned with WMATA’s duty to provide safe, reliable transportation . . . and it does not violate the First Amendment.”

In a statement, the archdiocese said it was disappointed in the ruling.

“We will continue in the coming days to pursue and defend our right to share the important message of Christmas in the public square,” archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden said.

Sherri Ly, a spokeswoman for the transit authority, said in an email: “Metro welcomes the court’s decision.”

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