WallBuilders, Supported by ACLU, Sues DC Metro for Rejecting Bus Ads
A left-wing legal group is siding with a Christian organization in its lawsuit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for refusing to allow the display of advertisements on city buses in the nation’s capital.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in collaboration with First Liberty Institute, filed a lawsuit against WMATA for rejecting two ads submitted by WallBuilders, a Christian organization that focuses on promoting “the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.” One of the ads in question featured a picture of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge, with the accompanying text “Christian? To find out about the faith of our founders, go to wallbuilders.com.” A second one featured a depiction of the signing of the U.S. Constitution with the same text.
The WallBuilders lawsuit is just the latest example of WMATA being accused of discriminating against particular viewpoints in its advertisement selection process. In 2017, the Archdiocese of Washington filed a lawsuit against the transit authority for rejecting its Christmas-themed ads that simply said “Find the Perfect Gift” and giving a URL, which referred to Jesus Christ without explicitly saying so. The Archdiocese’s lawsuit was rejected by a federal court. WMATA has also been sued by Milo Yiannopoulos and PETA, among other groups, for refusing to run ads.
According to WMATA, its ad review panel rejected the proposed WallBuilders ads because they “are both prohibited by Commercial Advertising Guideline 9,” which prohibits ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions,” as well as Guideline 12 which bans ads that “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief.”
But as explained by WallBuilders President Tim Barton on Friday’s edition of “Washington Watch,” his organization attempted to work with WMATA once they learned of the issue.
“[W]e quickly contacted First Liberty and said, ‘Okay, guys, what do we do?’ And part of their advice was, ‘Well, let’s just see what the problem is. Maybe let’s ask a few more questions. And so one of the things that we tried was if we remove the word ‘Christian’ and just have a picture of George Washington kneeling in prayer from the kind of iconic view of Valley Forge, or maybe the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention — if we just have that image and then a little QR code leads people to the website, maybe that could be enough. And even then we were told that that was not an acceptable ad because it violated some of their guidelines.”
Barton continued, “And among the guidelines, it’s crazy that they say that anything with a controversial view is not allowed, or if it’s anything political or religious, which at that point that’s just super arbitrary and subjective. And so we really felt like there was somebody at WMATA who … targeted us and said that we just don’t like these guys, and we’re not going to let them advertise.”
Jeremy Dys, a senior counsel at First Liberty, agreed, contending that the enforcement of the advertisement guidelines do not appear to be even-handed.
“You’ve got advertisements on D.C. Metro buses that include advertisers for … a social justice school [and] for ‘The Book of Mormon,’ that satire musical that lampoons religion more generally. … You’ve got advertisers for Plan B [an abortifacient drug], as well as an advertisement for advocating for term limits of Supreme Court justices. Again, their advertising guidelines say that they don’t allow advertisements … on which there could be ‘varying public opinions.’ Well, that’s everything. And yet they’ll allow advertisers for gambling and alcohol and worse, but deny advertisements featuring the guy kneeling in prayer of which their town is actually named. And so we’ve just simply alleged that this is obvious and open viewpoint discrimination. … [T]hat’s the kind of thing that the Supreme Court has said repeatedly our Constitution forbids.”
Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU of the District of Columbia, also concurred, commenting on the case, “We don’t understand why there should be a ban on religious advertisements. Religion is, after all, a point of view about the world.” The ACLU’s participation in the case has surprised observers, due to the fact that the group has displayed a pattern of going after Christian organizations and schools as well as conservative legislation in the past.
For his part, Dys expressed gratitude for the ACLU’s involvement in the WallBuilders’ case.
“Look, I was grateful to have their participation,” he said. “We’re obviously on different ends of the ideological spectrum, but we both agree. Perhaps where we overlap the most is that the government deciding who can speak and where they can speak is a really, really bad idea. And so even though they may disagree or even agree with this message, it doesn’t matter. They believe … free speech ought to reign in this country as it has for 200 plus years and are willing to join us and link arms with WallBuilders to stand for that very important principle.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.