- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a “friend of the court” motion Tuesday, arguing that Metro violated the Archdiocese of Washington’s First Amendment rights in banning religious ads last Christmas.

The amicus, or “friend of the court,” motion was filed in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and calls Metro’s ban unconstitutional.

“As the Supreme Court has made clear, the First Amendment prohibits the government from discriminating against religious viewpoints,” said Associate Attorney General Rachel L. Brand, announcing the lawsuit. “By rejecting the archdiocese’s advertisement while allowing other Christmas advertisements, [Metro] engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

The archdiocese in November tried to buy ads that were to placed on the side of Metrobuses. The advertisements were part of the archdiocese’s “Find the Perfect Gift” holiday campaign, and referred to a website that encourages people to attend Mass or donate to charity during the Christmas season.

Depicting an image of three people walking with a sheep and holding shepherd’s staffs, the ads were assumed to depict a scene from the biblical story of Christmas.

Metro rejected the ads, citing its ban on religiously themed advertising. The transit agency said such advertisements could incite violence or be seen as incendiary.

The archdiocese asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to issue temporary restraining order against Metro, but the court rejected the request.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court upheld that decision just five days before Christmas. The judges ruled that Metro officials were well within their rights to prohibit the archdiocese’s posters, in accordance with the transit agency’s ban on ads that promote religion, religious practice or belief.

Attorneys for the archdiocese alleged that Metro had accepted other religious ads, but the panel concluded that those were to promote stores or other corporate interests and were not of a religious nature.

“Appellant has not come forward with a single example of retail, commercial or other non-religious advertisement on a [Metro] bus that expresses the view that the holiday season should be celebrated in a secular or non-religious manner,” the panel wrote.

The appellate panel’s decision only addressed the archdiocese’s request for a restraining order. It did not address the Catholic church’s claim that its First Amendment rights had been violated.

Oral arguments in the case before the full court are slated for next month.

The Justice Department noted that it filed the amicus brief on Jan. 16, which is National Religious Freedom Day.

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