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Faith-based group prevails as judge rules 'vague' DC transit group's ad guideline restricts free speech

A Christian group who decried what it saw as violation of free speech by a Washington, D.C., transit group prevailed as a judge ruled the agency must display the nonprofit’s previously rejected ads.

“The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to express their point of view, religious or secular,” First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys told Fox News Digital in a statement on Thursday. 

“Censoring religious speech is an act of discrimination that is at odds with our nation’s commitment to religious freedom,” Dys said. “We are pleased that the court rejected [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] policies that censor an advertising message just because it is religious.”

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Beryl A. Howell ordered WMATA to display four advertisements proposed by the faith-based group, WallBuilders, after the D.C. transit agency previously rejected them as “issue ads” that violated its guidelines. The court ruled WMATA’s advertisement restrictions as a violation of the First Amendment, with Howell referring to the relevant guideline as “vague” and “not a reasonable restriction on speech,” ACLU reported. 


“We are pleased that this ruling moves us one step closer to ending WMATA’s arbitrary censorship of speech about public issues,” Arthur Spitzer, Senior Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, said in a Tuesday statement.

In December 2023, First Liberty Institute, ACLU and Steptoe law firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of WallBuilders after the WMATA rejected its displays and cited its rule that stated ads are prohibited if they “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.” But the lawsuit argued guideline 9 violated the First Amendment, which forbids viewpoint discrimination and restriction of speech. 

The Texas-based nonprofit organization, seeking to educate America’s Christian foundation through an emphasis on the Founders’ religious principles, requested one ad, for example, that had the word “Christian?” written in large white lettering over a picture of American historical figures, according to WallBuilders. All four ads also had QR codes in the lower right-hand corners, but some eliminated the language in the ad. 

Christian advertisement


“We certainly got the impression that it was something more specific with our group,” WallBuilders President Tim Barton previously told Fox News Digital. “The fact that we were willing to take off any kind of language on the ad and just have a picture of Founding Fathers with a QR code on our website, and they still said that that was unacceptable, that’s when it did not make any sense to us and felt like we were certainly being targeted as opposed to maybe just some kind of clerical oversight.”

The lawsuit also alleges WMATA shows inconsistent enforcement of guideline 9, ACLU reported. The transit agency has accepted religious ads and ads for groups promoting potentially divisive messages, including the Social Justice School, The Catholic University of America and the musical, “The Book of Mormon,” according to First Liberty Institute. 

The ACLU said the lawsuit is ongoing as the group asks the court to declare WMATA guidelines prohibiting “issue ads” and materials with religious content as unconstitutional, according to a press release. It also asks the court to require WMATA to run the ads that would violate those guidelines.

Washington, D.C. metro

“In a democracy, the government has no right to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable,” Spitzer said. “This case is about expanding everyone’s freedom to express their views without unreasonable government interference.”

WMATA responded to Fox News Digital saying they were unable to comment due to pending litigation.  

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