Each year, sharing the true meaning of the Christmas season seems to get a little more difficult. Just ask the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
After months of work on an ad campaign that was to reflect the hope of Advent with the message “Find the perfect gift,” the archdiocese was refused advertising space by the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) on the grounds that the message was overtly religious and therefore does not comply with WMATA’s advertising guidelines.
The “offensive” banner ad includes a silhouette of three shepherds, two sheep and stars of various sizes with minimal text reading “Find the Perfect Gift.” Because the ad “depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion,” WMATA refused.
The response? The archdiocese, led by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, sued, saying the decision was a violation of First Amendment rights.
“We believe rejection of this ad to be a clear violation of fundamental free speech and a limitation on the exercise of our faith,” said Kim Fiorentino, the Archdiocese of Washington’s chancellor and general counsel.
In a declaration written for court, Ed McFadden, secretary of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign was meant “to share a simple message of hope, welcoming all to Christmas Mass or in joining in public service to help the most vulnerable in our community during the liturgical season of Advent. ...”
Interestingly, WMATA has not always held its current position. In fact, the archdiocese had partnered with WMATA for years for advertising, most significantly for its “The Light is On for You” Lenten campaign to encourage Catholics to return to the confessional. The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, for which I used to work, did the same.
The change, according to WMATA’s own policy, took place in May 2015, when it began rejecting “any and all issue-oriented advertising.” The reason, WMATA says, is because these issue or advocacy ads may “provoke community discord and create concern about discriminatory statements on the system, as well as potential threats to safety and security from those who seek to oppose the ad messages.”
The fact that the silhouetted banner depicting the “all is calm, all is bright” silent night of the Christ Child’s birth could be considered a point of discord, a cause for discrimination or a potential threat is ludicrous. Yet here we are.
Adding insult to injury, by nature of its rejection, the archdiocese finds itself the de facto equal of another company — the women’s health care collective Carefem, makers of a 10-week-after abortion pill — which also was denied advertising space by WMATA. They too, along with three other organizations through the ACLU, have filed suit.
Merry Christmas and Bah Humbug, indeed.