Appeals Court: No Religious Ads on Buses

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 01, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The writing is on the wall for Pamela Geller, who sued a city bus service that rejected her anti-Muslim ad.

Technically, the Metro refused to put her ad on the side of its buses -- not the wall. But a federal appeals court upheld the bus service's policy in a similar case, and the writing is on the wall because Geller's case is pending.

In Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, the U.S. DC Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Transit Authority's rejection of an ad from the Catholic church. Not exactly the same as Geller's ad, but it is the same policy: no ads that "promote or oppose any religion, religious practice, or belief."

No Religion, Too

Last fall, the Metro rejected a Christmas ad from the archdiocese. The advertisement portrayed the silhouette of three shepherds on a hill with the words: "Find the Perfect Gift."

No, thank you, the transit authority said. It wasn't sacrilege or anything; it's just against the policy.

The Metro has guidelines on advertising, and they do not allow issue-oriented ads. That includes "political, religious, and advocacy advertising."

The church sued, arguing the prohibition violated its First Amendment rights. A trial judge said no, and the appeals court said hello.

Passenger Discomfort

Pamela Geller started this whole controversy over bus ads when she submitted an ad featuring a "Draw Muhammad" contest with a tie-in to a Texas shooting. When the transit authority declining her ad, she lashed out:

"These cowards may claim they are making people safer but I submit to you the opposite," she said. "They are making it far more dangerous for Americans everywhere."

However, the D.C. appellate court saw it differently. The appeals panel said that "religious speech and the free exercise of religion are of central First Amendment importance." But, Judge Judith Rogers wrote for the court, the advertising guidelines were "subject-matter restrictions in nonpublic forums," and showed no "animus" or "hostility" towards religion.

Not only that, the appeals court said, the transit authority had a "sensible basis" for its rule. Prohibiting religious or anti-religious advertising avoids risks of vandalism, violence, and "passenger discomfort."

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