In 2015, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) banned “issues-oriented” advertising of a political or religious nature from its buses, trains, and stations. Following this policy, the WMATA recently rejected a Christmas-themed advertisement submitted by the Catholic archdiocese, which has responded by challenging the policy in court. Sohrab Ahmari comments:
The ad, which was to be displayed on the side of WMATA buses, depicted the three shepherds against a starry night and urged commuters to “find the perfect gift” for the season—i.e., faith and service to the poor. According to the complaint, the transit authority rejected the ad soon after it was submitted, and subsequently refused to meet representatives of the archdiocese hoping to make their case.
The WMATA claims that its policy is non-discriminatory and therefore constitutional. All forms of political and religious expression are restricted in theory. But the archdiocese makes a strong case that the policy has been applied in “arbitrary and unreasonable” fashion. Since the ban was promulgated, for example, the WMATA has accepted ads for yoga, which is based on Hindu spirituality, as well as the Salvation Army, which is a Protestant Christian organization. Commercial ads pegged to the “holiday season” would also presumably survive WMATA scrutiny, even though the “season” in question refers to Christian and Jewish holy days.
No government authority should exercise such broad and unaccountable discretion when it comes to restricting First Amendment rights, even if the policy were applied uniformly. As it is, the policy prevents political, civil-society, commercial, and religious groups of all stripes from making their pitch, so to speak, in the nation’s capital, home base for all three branches of the U.S. government.
The cultural impact of the policy is equally deplorable. Years ago, the late [Catholic theologian and intellectual] Richard John Neuhaus and other social conservatives raised the alarm about the “naked public square”—democracies shorn of Judeo-Christianity and the public moral culture essential to sustaining freedom. The naked public square flies in the face of an American constitutional tradition that invites religious symbols and ideas while maintaining the basic secularity of the state.