Archdiocese sues Metro over rejected Christmas ads

WASHINGTON — The Archdiocese of Washington is suing Metro after the transit agency rejected its Christmas season ads that urge worshippers to “Find the Perfect Gift.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday and signed by former Solicitor General Paul Clement, claims the ad “conveys a simple message of hope, and an invitation to participate in the Christmas season,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

According to the church’s lawsuit, Metro denied these ads through a lawyer because it “depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.”

The suit asks a judge to throw out Metro’s ad guidelines regarding religion and award the church attorneys’ fees and costs.

In an emailed statement, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the transit agency changed its advertising policy in 2015 to prohibit “issue-oriented advertising, including political, religious and advocacy advertising. The ad in question was declined because it is prohibited by WMATA’s current advertising guidelines.”

The suit acknowledges that Metro has not accepted ads from the church since the new advertising policies were implemented.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also sued to invalidate the guidelines.

Among other things, the guidelines prohibit “advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” and “advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief.”

In past legal filings, Metro has said it rejected anti-wildlife trafficking ads, Birthright Israel ads and anti-prostitution ads among others.

The church wanted to put the ad on the sides and backs of Metrobuses leading up to and through December.

The ad includes a silhouette of shepherds and sheep on a starry background that evokes the journey of the Three Wise Men. It directs people to a website that details Mass schedules, charitable events and church teachings.

Under a separate agreement, the church bought space on bus shelters in the District. Those ads include an additional Bible verse and were accepted by Clear Channel Outdoor, which operates the advertising on bus shelters for the D.C. government.

Metro’s ad policies have come under fire before, since many advertisers perceive the guidelines to be exceedingly vague.

“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. But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch,” Ed McFadden, secretary for communications for the Archdiocese of Washington said in the statement.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims Metro is restricting the church’s First Amendment rights since the ad was rejected based on its religious nature.

It also challenges Metro’s rejection of the church’s ads as being out of step with the agency’s acceptance of ads for yoga and the Salvation Army.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited and updated to correct a misspelling of the Metro spokeswoman’s name.

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