The case, brought by the Archdiocese of Washington against the District of Columbia region’s mass transit system, would have been the latest example of religious freedom appeals heard by the conservative-leaning court.
The justices already are considering four major religion cases, all brought to them by religious organizations after lower court losses:
• School choice: Three Montana women challenged a Montana ban on state funds being used to pay for religious education.
• Employment discrimination: Two Catholic schools in California claim the right to fire teachers under a “ministerial exception” to job discrimination laws.
• Birth control: The Trump administration wants employers and universities with religious or moral objections to be able to deny women insurance coverage for contraceptives, as required by the Affordable Care Act.
• Foster care: Catholic agencies providing foster care in Philadelphia want the right to turn down gay and lesbian couples based on religious convictions.
The new case stemmed from the archdiocese’s effort in 2017 to place ads on buses and subway trains depicting the silhouette of three shepherds and sheep with the message “Find the Perfect Gift.” The ads directed viewers to Mass schedules while encouraging service projects and charitable giving.
The Christmas-themed ads bumped up against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s policy of banning religious, political and issue-oriented messages, enacted after complaints about an anti-Islam ad.
The Catholic Church wasn’t alone in its challenge. Other groups fighting the policy ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the transit system.
“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,” Judge Judith Rogers wrote.