Two major religious-liberty organizations are backing the Archdiocese of Washington in its lawsuit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for banning references to religion in ads on its buses – even while allowing a vast range of other messages.

Fox 5 in the nation’s capital reported the lawsuit challenges transit authority advertising rules that forbid references to religion.

The archdiocese wanted to post a bus ad stating “Find the Perfect Give,” with a silhouette image of three shepherds.

An archdiocese spokesman, Ed McFadden, said the rejected ad “conveys a simple message of hope, and an invitation to participate in the Christmas season.”

“Yet, citing its guidelines, WMATA’s legal counsel said the ad ‘depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.’ To borrow from a favorite Christmas story, under WMATA’s guidelines, if the ads are about packages, boxes or bags … if Christmas comes from a store … then it seems WMATA approves. But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch.”

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Transit officials simply said the ad was “prohibited” by their “guidelines.”

Now, First Liberty Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center have filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the archdiocese and poking fun at the WMATA.

“WMATA has decreed that the mere whisper of religiosity on a proposed advertisement by the archdiocese – the depiction of three shepherds under a bright star with the inviting message ‘Find the Perfect Gift’ – so threatens the public order that commuters caught in the snarl of everyday traffic must be protected from its message of hope and Christian charity,” the brief said.

The brief charges the transit authority with “viewpoint discrimination in violation of the Free Speech Clause and an unlawful imposition on the archdiocese’s religious liberties under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.”

As a government entity, WMATA is not allowed to impose viewpoint discrimination as a private company might.

“WMATA prohibited the archdiocese’s advertisement not because it referred to Christmas – as an advertisement that displayed presents under a Christmas tree would be permitted if placed by Macy’s — but because it sought to convey a religious viewpoint message emphasizing that Christ is the reason for the season,” said First Liberty Deputy General Counsel Mike Berry.

“That is a violation of the First Amendment.”

The transit’s guidelines state, “Advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief are prohibited.”

The brief submitted by the two groups went on: “As part of its purported effort to promote civic harmony and to prevent discord and public unrest, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has found it necessary to suppress the archdiocese of Washington’s modest efforts to remind locals of the true meaning of the holiday season.”

The archdiocese simply wanted to “invite people to better themselves by attending Christmas Mass, to live the virtue of charity, and to realize hope in Jesus Christ’s birth. Any one of these messages would have been permissible if it expressed a commercial, rather than religious, viewpoint,” the brief explained.

“WMATA allows, for instance, advertisements for a yoga clinic seeking to help D.C. consumers better themselves through exercise and meditation and for a range of charities seeking support to cure diseases or help the poor in a purely secular manner.”

The supporting arguments said the transit organization doesn’t object to the “words” of the message “but to the religious viewpoint that accompanies the speaker’s message. The phrase proposed by the archdiocese – ‘Find the Perfect Gift’ – would be perfectly acceptable under WMATA’s advertising guidelines if only it were accompanied by an logo.”

But it points out that the Supreme Court “has repeatedly recognized that the suppression of religious viewpoints cannot be justified by even a benevolent concern for promoting civic harmony.”

That high court, the brief states, “has repeatedly held that such religious viewpoint discrimination cannot be justified by any government interest and is virtually per se unlawful.”

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