Tuesday, July 2, 2019
The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) accepts advertisements on the side of its buses but rejects religious ads along with political and "issue-advocacy" ads. Under that policy, WMATA rejected an ad from the Catholic Archdiocese for its "Find the Perfect Gift" holiday campaign (directing viewers to information about worship services, charitable giving, and charitable-service opportunities), even though WMATA had accepted ads from retailers encouraging holiday shopping, from the Salvation Army exhorting charitable giving in the holiday red kettles, and from others (a yoga studio, a Christian radio station whose ad was supposedly not as overtly religious as the Archdiocese's, etc.).
The D.C. Circuit upheld the exclusion of the Archdiocese ad on the ground that it did not discriminate (impermissibly) against a religious viewpoint, but rather discriminated (permissibly) against religion as a "subject matter" in a nonpublic forum. The en banc court refused rehearing, over a strong dissent by Judge Griffith teeing up the case for cert (here is the SCOTUS Blog page). The cert petition, filed by Paul Clement et al. at Kirkland & Ellis, argues that the decision below is irreconcilable with Lamb's Chapel, Rosenberger, and Good New Club: the "equal access" decisions that hold, time after time, that exclusion of religious speech is viewpoint discrimination. (It also argues that excluding religious viewpoints as such violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)
Our religious liberty clinic at St. Thomas filed a brief for multiple organizational amici supporting the petition. First, we zeroed in on a couple of the court of appeals' arguments for treating the religious exclusion as subject-based rather than viewpoint-based, including this argument:
the court of appeals reasoned that the Archdiocese would have been able to place an ad urging charitable donations if its ad, like that of the Salvation Army, “contained only non-religious imagery”—for example, an ad simply saying “Please Give to Catholic Charities.” App-25. This argument is irreconcilable with Lamb’s Chapel, Rosenberger, and Good News Club. In each of those cases the presentation of a religious perspective involved explicit religious language, not mere reference to a religious identity or the religious nature of a belief. A restriction on “religious imagery” cripples the ability of speakers to present religiously grounded, and only religiously grounded, perspectives.
Second, we argued that "the specific subject matter involved in this case—the meaning and essence of Christmas and the winter holidays—itself presents important and recurring questions":
There is an ongoing debate in society about the essence of the holiday, the priorities to observe in celebrating it, and the motivation for gift-giving. On these subjects, various religious and secular perspectives compete, and the government must not discriminate among expressions of these perspectives by private groups and individuals.
By allowing holiday-related ads exhorting commercial gift-giving and charitable giving, but not an ad exhorting the religious basis for the holiday and for gift-giving, the court upheld viewpoint discrimination within subject matters included in the forum. Our brief touched on some of the societal controversies over "keeping Christ in Christmas," etc. Those controversies, we argued,
show that there is a set of competing perspectives on the subjects of the holiday season and which elements of it are most important. Some of those controversies arise in contexts not applicable here, such as speech by employees of private businesses or displays sponsored by government. But this case involves a government restriction on private speakers expressing their religious perspective in a government forum. In that category of cases, the government’s proper course is clear: it must allow varying perspectives on a subject matter to be expressed, on equal terms. To accept ads emphasizing the commercial and charitable aspects of Christmas and gift-giving but refuse ads emphasizing religious perspectives on those subjects skews public debate—the fundamental harm to free expression from viewpoint discrimination.
Like the Montana tax-credit case (Espinoza) where cert was just granted, this case focuses on what Justice Kavanaugh recently called "the bedrock principle of religious equality"--a concept more simple than the sometimes complex questions over government-sponsored religious symbols and government accommodation of religious practice. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, 139 S. Ct. 909, 909-11 (2019) (statement of Kavanaugh, J., respecting denial of certiorari). I would put the principle as "freely chosen religious activity should not be discouraged through discriminatory government actions"--but so framed, the principle is just as clear and foundational.
Both the Montana and D.C. cases show lower courts struggling mightily to validate discriminatory rules against voluntary religious speech and activity. A grant and reversal in the second case, joining the first, would clearly signal to judges and other officials that those efforts should cease.