Wednesday, August 1, 2018
D.C. Circuit Denies Injunction Against Transit Rule Banning Religious Content
The D.C. Circuit ruled yesterday in Archdiocese of Washington v. WMATA that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority rule that bans religious content advertising on buses did not likely violate free speech. The court denied the Archdiocese's motion for a preliminary injunction.
Judge Kavanaugh was an original member of the panel, but recused himself from the ruling.
The ruling sides with the government on a key free-speech question: Is religious content necessarily a viewpoint? The court said no.
The case involves WMATA's Guideline 12, which closes the public-transit authority's advertising space to issue-oriented ads, including political, religious, and advocacy ads. (Importantly, the Guideline banned by pro- and con- ads on each topic.) When WMATA, acting pursuant to the Guideline, rejected the Archdiocese's request to place religious ads on buses, the Archdiocese sued, arguing that the denial violated free speech, the Free Exercise Clause, and RFRA, among others. The Archdiocese moved for a preliminary injunction, but yesterday the D.C. Circuit rejected that request.
The court ruled that the Archdiocese was unlikely to succeed on its free speech claim, because buses are a non-public forum, and Guideline 12 permissibly discriminates based on the content, not viewpoint, of the message.
The court rejected the Archdiocese's argument that any content restriction on religious speech was necessarily a viewpoint based restriction on speech because there's a religious viewpoint on any matter. "Notably, there is no principled limit to the Archdiocese's conflation of subject-matter restrictions with viewpoint-based restrictions as concerns religion. Were the Archdiocese to prevail, WMATA (and other transit systems) would have to accept all types of advertisements to maintain viewpoint neutrality, including ads criticizing and disparaging religion and religious tenets or practices."
The court distinguished Rosenberger, Lamb's Chapel, and Good News Club--all of which struck government bans on religious speech as viewpoint-based discrimination. The court said that those cases involved religious-viewpoint discrimination within a defined content of speech. But here, the government simply banned the content of all religious speech, again, both pro- and con- (or otherwise).
[F]ar from being an abrogation of the distinction between permissible subject matter rules and impermissible viewpoint discrimination, each of these cases represents an application of the Supreme Court's viewpoint discrimination analysis, of which Guideline 12 does not run afoul. In each, the Court held that the government had engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination because the challenged regulation operated to exclude religious viewpoints on otherwise includable topics. An examination of each case demonstrates the contrast between the breadth of subjects encompassed by the forums at issue and WMATA's in which, unlike the restrictions struck down by the Court, Guideline 12 does not function to exclude religious viewpoints but rather proscribes advertisements on the entire subject matter of religion.
The court also said that the Archdiocese didn't demonstrate a likelihood of success on its other claims. As to Free Exercise, the court said that Guideline 12 was merely a religiously-neutral rule of general applicability, with no evidence of religious animus, and therefore valid under rational basis review.