Supreme Court rejects church challenge to ban on bus ads

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The Supreme Court is shown, Monday, April 6, 2020 in Washington. The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from the Catholic church in Washington, DC, that sought to place religious-themed ads on public buses. (Credit: Mark Sherman/AP.)

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority claims to have its hands tied in reviewing an advertising policy that outright discriminates against people of faith.

Reuters reports that the court on April 6 declined to hear a dispute brought by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington against the Washington area transit authority’s policy barring “divisive” religious advertisements in its stations and on buses and trains.

The “divisive” ads in question? An image of three shepherds and a star, making reference to events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible.

One of the nine justices, conservative Brett Kavanaugh, would be able to weigh in due to prior service on a court that dealt with the case. That would mean a 4-4 split between liberal and conservative justices on the high court, rendering a conservative victory in the case unsure.

“Because the full court is unable to hear this case, it makes a poor candidate for our review,” conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a statement regarding the court’s action. If Kavanaugh were not disqualified “our intervention and a reversal would be warranted,” Gorsuch added.

A federal judge in Washington declined to impose an injunction blocking the advertisement policy. The decision was upheld in 2019 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ruled that the policy did not discriminate against religious entities.

Archdiocese officials argued that the transit agency’s policy violated religious and free speech rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as well as a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that protects religious rights. They also accused the transit agency of applying the policy inconsistently, noting that the agency approved advertisements promoting Christmas shopping placed by commercial clients.

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