- - Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The rate at which Christmas is being leached of spiritual meaning and replaced with frenzied online shopping isn’t increasing fast enough for some.

In Washington D.C., the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) rejected a Metrobus advertisement from the Archdiocese of Washington that encouraged people to “Find the Perfect Gift,” and showed the silhouettes of three shepherds with their sheep — on account of the ad “promoting religion.” The imagery of the ad is not Christian on its face, nor even shows the baby Jesus, and the context would escape anyone unfamiliar with a relatively minor detail of the birth-story — that of poor and lonely shepherds surprised on a cold night by a sudden, unexpected happiness. If you go to the advertised website, you’ll find ways to bring happiness this Christmas to the needy and desolate, with charitable outreach to the poor and marginalized, and the most important gift — the joy and community of a welcoming and inclusive Christmas mass.

The archdiocese has, in turn, filed a complaint in federal court alleging a violation of its First Amendment rights of speech and exercise of religion by the government transit agency. By taking ads from retailers but not from the archdiocese, the government is discriminating in favor of ads for costly material goods, and against ads for free spiritual goods. Ed McFadden, communications secretary for the archdiocese said, “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.”

It does seem the work of a Grinch to turn down an ad from an organization that does so much good in D.C. and is only trying to do more. The archdiocese is the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the area, feeding 5 million souls annually, providing 1,000 beds for the homeless every night, and educating many thousands of underprivileged children regardless of their faith. The rejected ad is a simple invitation for the public to join them by finding the perfect gift this Christmas: the gift of service to their vulnerable neighbors when the cold and darkness of winter makes hard lives harder. It’s also an invitation to the lonely and isolated to come to church on Christmas Day, where there is companionship and peace — two things we crave all year, but especially on that day.

The archdiocese is right to fight back, not only to defend important constitutional liberties that are at stake, but also to defend American pluralism. Pluralism preserves the diversity and richness of our culture, allowing people of vastly different viewpoints and faith traditions to live side by side in peace, and express themselves freely. Yes, for some people, too many people, the Christmas holiday is a mad frenzy of buying and acquiring, and shopping and ordering. But for other people, Christmas is a holy day of remembering a young mother in a rude shelter delivering hope and light to a dark and despairing world, and finding there the inspiration to also be bearers of hope. Surely room can be made in our society for both approaches.

As the season gets underway, the frantic ads vying for our attention and the money in our wallets will yell at us ever more loudly from our televisions, the sides of buses and, seemingly, every other flat surface: “Buy and buy more things your loved ones don’t need, because that is what the ‘season’ is all about!” The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had a chance to advertise higher and nobler things — hope, joy, companionship, assistance, family and the simple traditions that bring peace to a seething society. Instead, they arbitrarily, unreasonably and unconstitutionally turned down the archdiocese — all for offering the only things we really need.

Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for the Catholic Association.

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