Archdiocese denied in effort to force Metro to post Christmas ads

WASHINGTON — Metro does not have to post Christmas ads from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

Metro had rejected the ads based on 2015 policies that ban ads “that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief,” a ban the archdiocese asked U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in a lawsuit filed Nov. 28 to find unconstitutional or illegal.

The archdiocese had asked for an injunction that would have ordered Metro to post the ads on buses across the region. Another version of the ads is already posted on some bus shelters which are controlled by the District Department of Transportation rather than Metro.

In this case, the judge found that while buses are controlled by a government agency, since Metro’s advertising restrictions are not based on whether the agency opposes the advertiser’s particular views, the rules are likely legal and reasonable.

“We are disappointed that the federal court denied our emergency request for an injunction,” said Ed McFadden, the Secretary for Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“The advertisement does not seek to address a general, otherwise permissible topic from a religious perspective — the sole purpose of directing the public to is to promote religion. The website declares: ‘JESUS is the perfect gift. [F]ind the perfect gift of God’s love this Christmas,’” the judge wrote.

The judge rejected the notion that Metro is endorsing the commercialization of Christmas by accepting ads for gifts or sales.

“[W]hile messages from retail establishments may be a manifestation of the commercialization and consumerism that characterize our society in general, and they may reflect the merchants’ aim to profit from the gift-giving activity, all that they convey is: if you are buying a gift for any reason during the current season, bring your business to us,” the judge wrote, adding that similar ads run all year round.

Judge Jackson found the archdiocese is not likely to succeed as the case moves forward on its claims based on free speech or other First Amendment concerns, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or based on a claim that Metro’s rules are being inconsistently applied.

“While this preliminary ruling that there should be no room granted for us on WMATA buses is disappointing, we will continue to pursue and defend our right to share the important message of Christmas in the public in the coming days,” McFadden said.

In addition to rejecting claims that a refusal to run the ads substantially burdened the church’s religious exercise, Jackson rejected claims from the church that an ad accepted to run on the sides of buses promoting donations to the Salvation Army or a separate ad for a yoga studio somehow showed a double standard.

“It is about as distant from the ancient Indian religious traditions that gave rise to yoga as Black Friday at Best Buy is from Bethlehem,” the judge wrote.

This story was updated at 4:16 to add in a statement sent to WTOP by the Archdiocese of Washington. WTOP’s Patrick Roth contributed to this report.

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