WASHINGTON — Christmas-themed ads about the “perfect gift” of the Advent season have been wrongly barred from District of Columbia buses, the Archdiocese of Washington has said in a lawsuit challenging a policy of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority against religious ads.
“Really the issue here isn’t so much our specific ad, or how we present it,” said Ed McFadden, the archdiocese’s secretary for communications. “It’s shutting down our ability to promote our faith or to share our faith in the public square. That is really what we’re talking about here.”
McFadden told CNA Nov. 28 that the ad policy removes “any respectable promotion of faith in the public square.”
“We believe that that’s just a violation of our First Amendment rights,” he said.
The advertisement depicts the silhouette of shepherds against a night sky in which an apparent Star of Bethlehem is shining. The ad reads “Find the perfect gift,” adding the website FindthePerfectGift.org and the hashtag “#PerfectGift.”
The website describes Christ as “the perfect gift” and exhorts the visitor to “Find the perfect gift of God’s love this Christmas.” It invites visitors to Mass and hosts a video reflection from Father Conrad Murphy, the archdiocese’s director of worship, about his favorite Christmas carol.
The site links to Christmas Mass times and Advent and Christmas traditions, as well as opportunities to give to families in need or volunteer to serve the homeless or others through Catholic Charities.
Metro spokeswoman Sherry Ly said that the agency’s advertising policy changed in 2015 to ban “issue-oriented advertising, including political, religious and advocacy advertising.”
“The ad in question was declined because it is prohibited by WMATA’s current advertising guidelines,” Ly said, according to the D.C.-based news radio station WTOP.
The transit agency in previous legal filings has said it rejected other ads, like those against trafficking wildlife, anti-prostitution ads and Birthright Israel ads.
However, the archdiocese’s lawsuit noted that the agency has accepted ads for yoga and for the Salvation Army, a Protestant religious movement famous for its red kettle charitable campaigns ahead of Christmas.
According to McFadden, WMATA’s legal counsel had said the archdiocese’s ad “depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.”
Kim Fiorentino, archdiocese chancellor and general counsel, said the archdiocese believes rejection of the ad is “a clear violation of fundamental free speech and a limitation on the exercise of our faith.”
“We look forward to presenting our case to affirm the right of all to express such viewpoints in the public square,” Fiorentino said in a statement.
The archdiocese has made a separate agreement to place similar ads on the District of Columbia’s bus shelters, whose advertising is operated by Clear Channel Outdoor. These ads contain a Bible verse.
McFadden said the archdiocese has been using bus ads for major campaigns for close to 10 years. City traffic creates a “captive audience,” and the buses tend to go into areas that lack bus shelters.
“This is our best way to reach different communities where other forms of media aren’t necessarily available on the street,” he said. The campaign strategy promotes ads on multiple platforms to remind people about Christmas and perhaps encourage them to go to Christmas Mass or volunteer to help others.
In McFadden’s view, the proposed WMATA ad was “comparatively mild” in terms of promulgating religion.
“This ad campaign is really just as much about the joy of the holiday season, reminding people why we do what we do, but also giving them the option to help their neighbor through various volunteer efforts,” he said. “This wasn’t simply about going back to Mass. This was also about trying to be a positive voice in the community at the time when we probably need it.”
Susan Timoney, secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the archdiocese, was among those who helped develop the campaign.
“Our ad was designed to be placed on metro bus exteriors to reach the broadest audience and to invite everyone to experience the well-accepted joyful spirit of the season, or to share their many blessings with others less fortunate through service opportunities,” she said.
Timoney said the archdiocese wanted to encourage society to help care for “our most vulnerable neighbors,” to “share our blessings” and to “welcome all who wish to hear the Good News.”