Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

Becket Role:
Amicus
Case Start Date:
November 28, 2017
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Supreme Court Status:
Cert Requested
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. conducts an annual holiday campaign which includes advertising on social media as well as on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s buses and Metro subway cars. But in 2017, as the Christmas season approached, the Metro denied the Archdiocese request to purchase ad space because of the campaign’s religious message. The Metro's new ad policy bans any ad deems controversial, including political, advocacy, and religious advertising. In November 2017, the Archdiocese of Washington sued WMATA for banning religious speech. On appeal, Becket along with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (ISKCON), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit defending the Archdiocese’s free exercise rights.

Status

On July 31, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court's ruling, stating that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising. The Archdiocese appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court on May 20, 2019.

Case Summary

A reminder of the reason for the season

Every Christmas season, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., conducts a holiday campaign called “Find the Perfect Gift” to remind people of the religious meaning of Christmas and to invite them to give to those in need. The campaign includes extensive advertising in public spaces as well as on social media. Buying advertisements on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s buses and Metro subway cars is one of the most effective way for the Archdiocese to spread its message of giving and hope to the DC metro area.

Religious speech censored on the metro

But in 2017, as the Christmas season approached, the Metro denied the Archdiocese request to purchase ad space because of the campaign’s religious message. Metro’s 2015 ad policy bans any ad Metro deems controversial, including political, advocacy, and religious advertising. WMATA’s guidelines disqualified the Archdiocese from using ad space simply because the ads are religious. Ads about the secular or commercial meaning of Christmas – such as department store sales – were permitted, whereas religious ads encouraging generosity and service during the holiday season were prohibited. Although a secular organization can post meeting times, addresses, or contact information on a Metro ad, religious groups, including a monastery, were banned from doing the same thing.

In November 2017, represented by former Solictor General Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis, the Archdiocese of Washington sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for banning religious speech. The district court denied a preliminary injunction and the Archdiocese appealed to the D.C. Circuit. In January 2018, Becket along with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (ISKCON), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit defending the Archdiocese’s free exercise rights, arguing that the government does not get to arbitrarily exclude messages from the public square just because they are religious. Targeting and censoring religious messages violates the First Amendment.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

On July 31, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, stating that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising. The Archdiocese appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court on May 20, 2019.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speechFreedom of speech is not only an inherent human right, but also a fundamental building block of our society. The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. This involves religious speech as well.
  • Public squareReligious organizations must be free to operate in the public square according to their beliefs.