DOJ wades into archdiocese fight for ads on DC buses

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The Trump administration is throwing its support behind the Archdiocese of Washington in its fight with city transit officials over running a holiday ad on the side of city buses.

The archdiocese is appealing the D.C. District Court’s refusal to grant an injunction and direct the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to accept the archdiocese’s ad for its “Find the Perfect Gift” Christmas campaign. 

The ad, which said “Find the Perfect Gift,” featured a silhouette of three shepherds walking alongside their sheep beneath a starry night sky and listed the website, which tells visitors that “Jesus is the perfect gift.”

WMATA said the ad violated its guidelines, which prohibit advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief.


In a 14-page brief filed Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that WMATA’s policy constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and violates the Archdiocese of Washington’s free speech rights.

“In the context of Christmas advertising, WMATA’s guidelines permit messages which generally express commercial or charitable viewpoints, but exclude messages that express religious viewpoints,” DOJ attorneys wrote.

“Had Macy’s, for example, sought to run a Christmas-themed ad stating, ‘Find the Perfect Gift,’ and displaying an image of its jewelry, nothing in the guidelines would prohibit the company from doing so. But because the Archdiocese’s proposal arguably conveyed the implicit message that ‘JESUS is the perfect gift,’ WMATA rejected it.”

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s leadership, the DOJ said it has shown a commitment to religious liberty and free speech protections.

“As the Supreme Court has made clear, the First Amendment prohibits the government from discriminating against religious viewpoints,” Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand said in a statement.

“By rejecting the Archdiocese’s advertisement while allowing other Christmas advertisements, WMATA engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

The archdiocese is concurrently challenging WMATA’s advertising policy in the district court.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who denied the original request for an injunction, ordered the archdiocese to show why the case presents a live controversy and should not be dismissed as moot now that the “liturgical season” has come to an end.

Attorneys for the archdiocese said the church intends to purchase advertising space on public buses for other campaigns that are similar to the “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign in the future.

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