The Archdiocese of Washington has condemned as "false and misleading" an advertising campaign inside Metro trains and bus shelters that features posters critical of Roman Catholic teaching against the use of condoms.
The ads posted at 50 bus shelters in the District include such statements as "Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die" and "Catholic people care. Do our bishops?" Similar ads are running in 134 Metrorail cars.
They are part of an international campaign sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington-based religious advocacy group. The campaign was launched Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, to promote the distribution of condoms among sexually active teenagers and adults as a means of helping prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, said Frances Kissling, president of the group.
Beginning this month, the organization will post ads in Belgium, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and other countries. Locally, it has extended the bus shelter advertising, which began Nov. 28, through Jan. 28; the Metrorail ads, which started Dec. 7, will come down next week when that contract expires. A similar ad appeared Nov. 30 in The Washington Post.
Archdiocese officials said Metro should not have run the ads because they contain false information.
Catholic bishops oppose the use of condoms because they present a barrier to the "full openness to life and unity between [married] couples," said archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. But, Gibbs said, "the fact is the bishops do not have the authority to 'ban' condoms."
She added that the ads "accuse bishops of killing people when in fact the bishops advocate the only lifestyle to protect against HIV/AIDS: a lifestyle of abstinence outside a monogamous marriage."
Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said the transit authority's legal office, after reviewing the ads, "essentially determined that people may disagree with the content and portrayal of bishops" but that there was "nothing obscene, pornographic, lewd or offensive" to prevent them from running.
"To us, it came down to a First Amendment issue," Feldmann said. "We're simply providing a vehicle, literally and figuratively, for the group to present its point of view." Those who oppose that view "have the same right" to take out an ad, he said.
"We're not the referees making sure these ads are 100 percent accurate," he added.
Gibbs said the archdiocese became involved after receiving "dozens and dozens of complaints" from parishioners who saw the ads. It has not asked Metro to remove the ads, but it has put out an "advocacy alert" that urges parishioners to contact Metro officials and politicians who have influence over transportation funding.
Metro has received "about 25 e-mails or phone calls from people objecting to these ads," said Feldmann, who noted that the transit authority controls advertising on buses and trains and in Metro stations but not at bus shelters.
That responsibility falls to the District division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Alex Eckmann, administrator of the office of mass transit. Eckmann said he has received one complaint from a caller who found the ads "objectionable to Catholics."
"We have to be sensitive both to bigotry and to [the freedom] of commercial speech," Eckmann said he told the caller. The department will not approve advertising that is "blatantly untruthful or false," he said. He said it also cannot be deceptive, obscene or in violation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Act.
Eckmann said the ads submitted by Catholics for a Free Choice fell within the department's guidelines.
Feldmann said the ads running in Metro trains cost $13,000 for a month of display and are similar to other ads Metro has accepted that present political, philosophical or religious positions. Last January, Metro ran ads from an organization promoting the decriminalization of marijuana. That campaign generated far more complaints, he said.