First Liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, DC, and the Steptoe law firm last week all filed a lawsuit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for what the group says are free-speech violations. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Wallbuilders after WMATA rejected the group's proposed billboards for the sides of buses.
The ad campaign's plan was to show George Washington in the forest kneeling and looking upward and also Washington standing at a ballroom gathering and addressing a large group of people. Text for the ads would say: Christian? To find out about the faith of our founders go to WallBuilders.com.
WMATA refused the ads on the grounds that they violated advertising policy because they "intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying public opinions," according to a First Liberty news release.
"We thought for people who are going to learn American history, there's not many places more people go than Washington, DC, when you have the Smithsonians and the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Capitol building, there's so much there. And we thought that would be a great place for us to advertise, to let people know about the new website, all the things we're doing at WallBuilders," WallBuilders president Tim Barton said on Washington Watch Friday.
Barton told show host Jody Hice that WallBuilders doesn't claim that every one of the Founding Fathers was a Christian but instead encourages people to study writings of the Founders and draw their own conclusions.
"We have dozens and dozens of quotes from the Founding Fathers talking about their faith, and this isn't us projecting anything. This is literally us saying, 'Here are the quotes,'" Barton explained.
Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty, says WMATA's denial of WallBuilders' ads is a contradiction because the transit authority has run multiple ad campaigns on buses that violate its vague policies.
WMATA applies policies inconsistently
Dys says a single person at WMATA has too much authority and is randomly approving – or not approving – ad campaigns.
"You've got advertisements on DC Metro buses that include advertisements for alcohol and online gambling. You have advertisers for a social justice school in the DC Metroplex. There's an advertisement for the Book of Mormon, that satire musical that lampoons religion more generally," the attorney listed.
"And then some of my favorites – you've got advertisers for Plan B [the morning-after abortion pill] as well as an advertisement advocating for term limits of Supreme Court justices again. Their advertising guidelines say that they don't allow advertisements that have issues presenting various public opinions on which there could be varying public opinions. Well, that's everything."
The ACLU, rarely a supporter of Christian causes, is in full agreement. "The lawsuit argues that these ad guidelines violate the First Amendment, which prohibits government agencies from discriminating against private speech based on their viewpoint or from imposing rules that aren't applied consistently. It also shows how the guidelines inevitably lead to discrimination based on advertisers' viewpoints and are necessarily applied in an arbitrary and unreasonable manner," the ACLU news release reads.
It's the second time the ACLU has sued WMATA on a First Amendment matter. In 2017 ACLU et al. v. WMATA alleged discrimination on a variety of viewpoints.
"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," said Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU-DC.
ACLU support welcomed
Dys stated he is grateful for the ACLU's involvement.
"We're obviously on different ends of the ideological spectrum, but we both agree [that] perhaps where we overlap the most is that the government deciding who can speak and where they can speak is a really, really bad idea," said the attorney.
"Whether they may disagree or even agree with this message, it doesn't matter. They believe free speech ought to reign in this country as it has for 200-plus years. And they are willing to join us and link arms with WallBuilders to stand for that very important principle – not just for WallBuilders, but for every religious organization and every other speaker across this country.
"I think that's a very laudable move on their part – and for us as well," Dys added.