The transit authority serving the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area is facing another lawsuit over its advertising policy, this time for refusing to accept religious Christmas ads from the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Catholic archdiocese on Nov. 28 filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the refusal of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to accept biblically themed bus ads infringed on the archdiocese’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
The ads feature a starry sky, shepherds and the words “Find The Perfect Gift,” and they refer viewers to the archdiocese’s charitable campaign.
A WMATA spokesperson told CNN, “The ad in question was declined because it is prohibited by WMATA’s current advertising guidelines.” The guidelines, which were adopted in 2015, prohibit issue-oriented advertising, including political, religious and advocacy ads, on the authority’s buses, subway trains and stations.
Archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden pointed to an alleged discrepancy in that WMATA accepts more commercial-themed Christmas ads.
“To borrow from a favorite Christmas story, under WMATA’s guidelines, if the ads are about packages, boxes or bags ... if Christmas comes from a store ... then it seems WMATA approves,” McFadden told CNN. “But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch.”
WMATA’s ad policy has been targeted in the past. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the transit agency after WMATA refused to display an ad from the ACLU featuring the First Amendment published in English, Spanish and Arabic. The agency also rejected an ad from Carafem, a group that provides abortion services; several “Go Vegan” ads from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; and ads promoting a book written by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
As this issue of Church & State was going to press, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson denied the archdiocese’s request for an injunction that would have forced WMATA to post the ads. The judge ruled that the archdiocese is unlikely to win its case and said WMATA’s policy restricting political and religious ads is permissible.
“Given WMATA’s concerns about the risks posed by issue-oriented ads, including ads promoting or opposing religion, its decision was reasonable,” Jackson wrote in her opinion in the Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority case. “The regulation is reasonably aligned with WMATA’s duty to provide safe, reliable transportation in the Nation’s capital and surrounding areas, and it does not violate the First Amendment.”
In other news about religious displays:
A California chapter of the Satanic Temple had to craft a new topper to its holiday tree display after the black goat head mask that had originally crowned the tree was stolen.
The tree was one of several decorated by religious and other groups for San Jose’s annual Christmas in the Park display. The mask, modeled after the deity Baphomet’s head, topped the tree for one day only before it went missing on Nov. 25.
“Our intention was simply to bond with our community, craft a beautiful tree and be part of a San Jose tradition,” Satanic Temple chapter spokeswoman Sadie Satanas told The Mercury News. She said it was the chapter’s first time participating in the festival, which was celebrating its 38th year.
Satanas theorized the thief was “probably someone who thought it was cool or someone who disagreed.” She did not cast blame on event organizers.
Satanas said she donated the mask, made from clay, papier-mâché, foam and silk, from her personal collection. At Church & State’s press time, the chapter was raising money to have a new mask commissioned.
Jason Minsky, executive director of Christmas in the Park, said event organizers “had some conversations” about the Satanic Temple’s tree, but didn’t feel the group violated the only prohibition – no “offensive language.”
“It becomes a freedom of speech right, and they have the right to be involved in the event,” he told The News.
A small city in New Hampshire agreed to fly an atheist flag above a Ten Commandments monument located on city property during the month of January, which town officials plan to proclaim “Diversity Month.”
Somersworth was expected to hoist the black flag bearing the red letter “A” on Jan. 2 at Citizen’s Place, a small park on a traffic island owned by the city. The park is the site of a Ten Commandments monument that has been contested, as well as two flagpoles available for community members to use to fly various flags.
The atheist flag display comes at the request of Somersworth resident Richard Gagnon, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He originally had intended to display the flag during December in honor of the winter solstice, traditionally a pagan holiday, but agreed to move the display to January so that the flag could be flown for a longer period.
Gagnon said he objected to the continued display of the Ten Commandments monument but appreciated the city’s openness to allowing diverse views to be expressed at the park.
“Sometimes we might get a little too zealous, and do more harm than good,” Gagnon told the New Hampshire newspaper Foster’s Daily Democrat. “Tolerance is a two-way street and that’s what Somersworth is – a very tolerant city.”
Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard agreed with Gagnon’s characterization of the town. “This is the city that elected the first openly gay mayor, which is me,” he told Foster’s. “And we just elected one of eight transgendered individuals elected nationwide. I wear that as a badge of honor.”