Federal Judge Orders DC Transit Authority to Run Christian Ads It Had Rejected

A federal judge has ruled that the Washington D.C. transit system must display faith-based ads on public buses, trains, and Metro stations after the transportation authority rejected four advertisements claiming they tried to “influence” the public. WallBuilders is a Texas-based non-profit group that seeks to educate the public about the role that the Founding Fathers’ Christian faith played in the creation of the nation and the drafting of the Constitution. Last summer, WallBuilders decided to launch an advertising campaign in D.C. and requested to place ads on the side of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) buses. WMATA rejected the ads claiming they violated its advertising guidelines, which prohibit advertising “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying public opinions.” What’s in the ads? One ad features Henry Brueckner’s image of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge with the phrase, “CHRISTIAN?” at the bottom. The ad includes an invitation to visit WallBuilders.com to “find out about the faith of our Founders,” along with a QR code.

The second ad depicts a well-known painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, with identical language. The original painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol. After the ads were initially rejected, WallBuilders requested more guidance from WMATA to change the display, but the transit authority did not respond. WallBuilders assumed the issue was with the word, “Christian” and removed the phrase along with the reference to the “Faith of the Founders” and resubmitted the ads. The revised ads were also rejected with no further explanation. In a rare example of agreement, the case actually brought together free speech advocates from the right and the left. Last December, the non-profit legal group First Liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the law firm of Steptoe, LLP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of WallBuilders challenging WMATA advertising restrictions as violations of the First Amendment.  The lawsuit argued that two of the transit authority’s policies, Guidelines 9 and 12, violated First Amendment rights.

Guideline 9 prohibits advertisements intended to influence people on an issue where there are “varying opinions” and guideline 12 prohibits advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, practice or belief, Courthouse News Service reported. However, the First Amendment prohibits government agencies from discriminating against private speech based on viewpoints or from imposing unreasonable restrictions on speech. According to First Liberty, this is the second free speech lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging WMATA’s advertising guidelines claiming the transit authority has discriminated against a variety of viewpoints. For example, WMATA allowed an Instacart ad promoting “Plan B,” an over-the-counter contraceptive. But in 2017, WMATA rejected an ad for an abortion pill from the ACLU’s client Carafem. Additionally, an ACLU ad displaying the text of the First Amendment in multiple languages was also rejected by the transportation authority. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell issued a preliminary injunction ruling that WMATA’s ban on issue ads violates the First Amendment’s requirement that restrictions on speech be reasonable.

Howell noted that WMATA’s guideline 9 was “vague” and also pointed out that the transit authority was inconsistent when applying it. “To be clear, WMATA is permitted to retain considerable discretion in evaluating the intent and purpose of an ad, but this discretion must be coupled with objective, workable standards,” Howell wrote in her opinion. Howell also noted that WallBuilders could challenge the constitutionality of Guideline 12, and Liberty Counsel noted litigation will continue on the issue. Meanwhile, the non-profit legal group is applauding the judge’s ruling. “The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to express their point of view, religious or secular,” said First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys. “Rejecting a faith-based advertising banner by labelling it an ‘issue ad,’ while accepting other ads such as those promoting a ‘Social Justice School,’ ‘Earth Day,’ and the highly controversial idea of terms limits for Supreme Court Justices, is clearly hypocritical, discriminatory, and illegal,” he continued.

“We are grateful that the court recognized that WMATA unconstitutionally rejected WallBuilders’ ads and look forward to continuing to fight for complete victory,” Dys added. And while the ACLU has a lawsuit against WMATA still pending, they say they are also pleased with Howell’s ruling. “We are pleased that this ruling moves us one step closer to ending WMATA’s arbitrary censorship of speech about public issues,” said Arthur Spitzer, Senior Counsel at the ACLU-D.C. “In a democracy, the government has no right to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable. This case is about expanding everyone’s freedom to express their views without unreasonable government interference.”

Source: CBNNews

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