WallBuilders sues DC Metro after it rejects bus ads

Screenshot: YouTube/MJofLakeland1
Screenshot: YouTube/MJofLakeland1

A major public transportation provider is facing a lawsuit after it rejected an ad by a faith-based organization seeking to advertise on its buses. 

In a complaint filed Tuesday, the faith-based nonprofit organization WallBuilders asked a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to order the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to declare that its prohibitions on “[a]dvertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” or “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief” are unconstitutional. 

WallBuilders has secured the legal support of First Liberty Institute, a noted religious liberty law firm, and the American Civil Liberties Union as it seeks to challenge WMATA’s policies on advertisements. WMATA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Randy Clarke is the defendant in the lawsuit. 

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The lawsuit comes after WallBuilders unsuccessfully sought to advertise on the “Metrobuses” that serve residents of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area. One of the advertisements submitted to the WMATA for placement on the buses featured a picture of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge accompanied by text reading, “Christian? To find out about the faith of our founders, go to” 

A second proposed advertisement featured the same text with a picture of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in the background. WMATA rejected the advertisements because “the ad review panel has determined that the two attached proposed advertisements are both prohibited by Commercial Advertising Guideline 9,” which bans ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.” 

WallBuilders concluded that “Guideline 9 appeared to be vague and had the effect of excluding all religious speech from being advertised on the exterior of WMATA buses” and asked WMATA to elaborate on the reasoning behind the rejection. After the transit agency failed to respond, WallBuilders submitted revised advertisements that featured the same pictures but omitted all language except for an invitation to “visit” WMATA again rejected the ads.

“Although WMATA Guideline 9 prohibits ‘[a]dvertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions,’ WMATA continues to permit advertisements on a variety of controversial issues on which members of the public have varying opinions, including allowing a number of advertisements that criticize or promote religious practices and belief,” the lawsuit states. 

The complaint noted that the WMATA had posted ads promoting “The Book of Mormon,” described as a play that amounts to a mockery of the Mormon faith and religion in general on its buses. Additionally, WMATA buses have also advertised the Catholic University of America. The ads for the Catholic institution of higher education have included the tagline: “Every story is a journey of the spirit.”

Other examples of WMATA advertisements identified in the complaint as efforts to “influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” are promotions of Earth Day, the JxJ DC Jewish Film and Music Festival and the Social Justice School, which exists “to catalyze an integrated community of middle-school learners to be scholar-activists who are designers of a more just world.”

WMATA has also posted an advertisement featuring the phrase “DEMAND SUPREME COURT TERM LIMITS” in one of its Metrorail stations. 

The lawsuit contends that Guideline 9 and Guideline 12, which declares that “[a]dvertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief are prohibited,” as violations of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of Freedom of Speech. In addition to seeking an injunction preventing WMATA from enforcing Guidelines 9 and 12 against WallBuilders, the plaintiffs are also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs. 

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys explained: “The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to express their point of view, religious or secular. Rejecting a faith-based advertising banner by labeling it an ‘issue ad,’ while accepting other ads, such as those promoting a ‘Social Justice School,’ ‘Earth Day,’ and the highly controversial idea of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, is clearly hypocritical, discriminatory, and illegal.”

“WMATA must support the freedoms provided in the First Amendment rather than silence Americans through censorship,” he added.

Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU-D.C., offered a similar analysis of the case: “The case against WMATA is a critical reminder of what’s at stake when government entities exercise selective censorship. The First Amendment doesn’t play favorites; it ensures that all voices, regardless of their message, have the right to be heard.”

While the ACLU has developed a reputation as a left-leaning organization that often finds itself at odds with faith-based organizations in recent years, Spitzer stressed that the “ACLU defends these suits, regardless of whether it agrees with the underlying message because it believes in the speaker’s right to express it.” He reiterated that “the government cannot arbitrarily decide which voices to silence in public forums.”

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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