Saturday, December 09, 2017

DC Transit Authority's Ban On Religious Ads Upheld

In Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, (D DC, Dec. 8, 2017), the DC federal district court upheld advertising Guidelines of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority which, among other things, bar transit vehicle ads "that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief."  The Catholic Archdiocese challenged the application of this Guideline after WMATA refused to allow the Archdiocese's "Find the Perfect Gift" Christmas campaign ad.  The ad, intended for the exterior of public buses, was designed "to invite the public to consider the spiritual meaning of Christmas..." Denying a preliminary injunction, the court found that plaintiff is unlikely to succeed  on the merits of its free speech, free exercise, equal protection or RFRA arguments.

Rejecting the Archdiocese's free speech claim, the court held that the exterior of a bus in not a "public forum," and WMATA's restriction is neutral and reasonable.  The court said in part:
plaintiff maintains that the Guideline has been discriminatorily and arbitrarily enforced, favoring other religious advertisements over those sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese.... But the record does not support this contention. None of the advertisements plaintiff highlights to make that point – neither the ads heralding the opening of another CorePower Yoga fitness studio in Clarendon, Virginia (“Muscle + Mantra”), nor the ads soliciting contributions to the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle effort (“Give Hope. Change Lives”) “promote or oppose any religion.”
Rejecting plaintiff's RFRA argument, the court said that no "substantial burden" or religious exercise was shown here:
... RFRA decisions turn on an element of compulsion, and here plaintiff is under no pressure to do anything. The fact that plaintiff has a sincere belief in spreading the gospel is not in dispute, but the existence of that belief, and even the sincere desire to act in accordance with it, is not enough to sustain a claim.
Washington Post reports on the decision.