Step aside Ebenezer, there’s a new Scrooge in town. This Advent, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was forced to sue the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority after the agency rejected the archdiocese’s Christmas ad for Metro trains and buses. Last Friday, the district court ruled against the archdiocese.
According to the WMATA, the archdiocese’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” ad campaign, which encourages people to head to church during the Advent and Christmas season, violates WMATA’s advertising guidelines because the ad “depicts a religious scene” (the nativity) “and thus seeks to promote religion.” No kidding.
There’s something almost fitting about the Catholic Church being told it cannot advertise for Christmas at Christmas. This is the season, after all, that revolves around a story of a husband and his pregnant wife being rejected in the most demeaning of ways, forcing her to give birth in a stable. The story of the birth and life of Jesus Christ, indeed, is a story of constant rejection, from beginning to end.
WMATA’s rejection, however, is unconstitutional. To explicitly discriminate against a religious group’s speech is not neutral; it is actively selecting the speech and expression of one faith group and stifling it. Or, as archdiocese attorney Paul Clement put it, “The government may not allow a wide variety of speech in a forum and then turn around and deny the Archdiocese access because of the religious nature of its speech.”
And make no mistake, the government is happy to profit off of Christmas. It will rake in plenty from ads that take the very religious holiday given to the world by the Catholic Church and gut it of any spiritual meaning, leaving only the promotion of materialism and consumption intact. Cashmere sweaters and cheap jewelry and sales on snow boots — all that’s fine. But dare to actually talk about Christmas itself, and you’re suddenly in violation of the rules.
Indeed, the culture’s hijacking of Christmas for a weeks-long frenzy of shopping and eating while muzzling Christians seems to be the only acceptable form of cultural appropriation remaining. Christians get mocked for wearing “It’s okay to wish me a Merry Christmas” buttons, and yet the Catholic Church has to sue for the right to put a Christmas ad on the back of a bus for a Christmas campaign that includes a church-run gift program for poor children who most certainly won’t be receiving cashmere sweaters.
And while this is just one lawsuit, it highlights a broader trend in the United States in which we are slowly whitewashing the public square of the diverse religious expression that has long made the United States unique. Groups such as the ACLU, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, roam the country seeking crèches that haven’t yet been boarded up, menorahs that haven’t yet been extinguished and Christmas trees that haven’t yet been renamed “great pine trees.”
And while the fighting may seem petty to some, it most certainly has the effect of chilling religious speech by sending the message to hundreds of millions of faithful Americans that openly celebrating their religious holidays is offensive and possibly illegal. This is dangerous. As the peaceful expression of religious pluralism is stamped out, the state’s religion — dogmatic secularism — takes its place.
As Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his famous The Naked Public Square, “The notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it — the state and the individual.” Sound hyperbolic? One of Fidel Castro’s first moves was to ban Santa Claus. Ten years later, in 1969, he abolished Christmas altogether.
As another Advent and Christmas season begin, Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ child against many odds. Increasingly, we celebrate the survival of our right to do so in public, against many odds. Including, this year, the Scrooges at the WMATA.