Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)
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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.
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.
On July 31, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, stating that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising.