Christian Organization Sues D.C. Metro for Rejecting Ads

Christian Organization Sues D.C. Metro for Rejecting Ads

Wallbuilders, an organization focused on presenting the “forgotten history and heroes” of U.S. history with a focus on the Christian roots of the country’s founders, has filed suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in Washington, D.C., for rejecting their advertisements on the basis of potentially controversial content. They are represented by First Liberty Institute and are supported by what some might consider an unlikely ally: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We argue that [WMATA’s] decision to exclude and censor the ads is wrong and unconstitutional,” First Liberty said in a statement. Last summer, Wallbuilders designed an advertising campaign for D.C. metro buses. “There are not many places where you can get more American history than Washington, D.C.,” president of Wallbuilders Tim Barton told CBN Digital. “We would love, while they’re there, maybe to have [Americans visiting D.C.] learn some more of the truth of America’s history.”

The first ad designs took iconic paintings of the U.S.’s founding fathers and superimposed “CHRISTIAN?” across the images. At the bottom was the caption, “To find out about the faith of our founders, go to” with a QR code that would take viewers to the Wallbuilders website, which is currently receiving some updates that Barton expressed excitement about.

WMATA, a government agency, rejected the first ad on the basis of one of its guidelines that prohibits ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.” Wallbuilders asked WMATA to give them a better idea of how to follow the guidelines, but WMATA did not respond.

Thinking it was because of the word “Christian,” Wallbuilders removed both that word and the mention of “faith” in the bottom caption. The revisions only contained the paintings, the Wallbuilders logo, and the QR code with “Visit” WMATA then rejected the revised ads, reportedly with no explanation or elaboration.

First Liberty argues that WMATA’s guidelines are unconstitutional and inconsistently applied. In addition to the guideline prohibiting “issue ads,” WMATA has another guideline that prohibits ads that “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief.” Being a government agency, WMATA should be bound by the First Amendment to treat speech equally, First Liberty says.

“Why that’s unconstitutional is it puts it at the arbitrary discretion of some administrator somewhere else,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty, said. “As one court put it, it puts it ‘at the whims of the administrator.’ So if they decide that they just don’t like Tim Barton or Wallbuilders, they can deny the ad.”

WMATA has allegedly been inconsistent in that it has allowed ads drawing attention to several issues, products and organizations about which there are varying public opinions. To name a few, D.C. metros have featured ads for the contraceptive Plan B, an ad featuring the phrase “DEMAND SUPREME COURT TERM LIMITS,” and ads for the satire play The Book of Mormon, which is aimed at lampooning a religion. They have allowed ads for The Catholic University of America and the Jewish Film and Music Festival.

Barton said that this case is much bigger than Wallbuilders running an advertising campaign—it is for everyone who wants to enjoy First Amendment freedoms, especially in Washington, D.C. Wallbuilders and First Liberty hope that this case will have an extended impact for First Amendment rights.

Many have expressed surprise at the ACLU’s support for Wallbuilders and First Liberty in this case for free speech considering their opposing views on many issues. “The case against WMATA is a critical reminder of what’s at stake when government entities exercise selective censorship,” Arthur Spitzer, ACLU senior counsel in D.C., said. “The First Amendment doesn’t play favorites; it ensures that all voices, regardless of their message, have the right to be heard.”

Dys says the ACLU sees this as a pure speech issue. “For them, even though they may disagree with us [and] Wallbuilders,” Dys said, “they still would stand with the principle that you should be free to speak a message.

“You should not be giving the government this unbridled authority to choose who can and cannot speak in public forums, or anywhere else for that matter.” “There’s no doubt,” Barton added, “that when you have such an arbitrary, subjective standard, that whoever’s the one choosing can choose what they like and what they don’t like, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Photo: First Liberty Institute

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