Washington’s Metro has rejected a Catholic ad campaign that promotes “spiritual giving” instead of presents, arguing that the image of stars, shepherds and sheep promotes religion, a violation of the transit system’s rules.

The Archdiocese of Washington told Secrets that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority turned down a request to promote its “Find the Perfect Gift” initiative because the image “depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion,” although it does not include a manger scene, Christ figure or even a cross.

As a result, the Archdiocese Tuesday filed suit challenging Metro’s ad guidelines.

More: Archdiocese of Washington files lawsuit against WMATA after Christmas ad rejected

“The rejected ad conveys a simple message of hope, and an invitation to participate in the Christmas season. Yet citing its guidelines, WMATA’s legal counsel said the ad ‘depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion,’” said Ed McFadden, secretary for communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“To borrow from a favorite Christmas story, under WMATA’s guidelines, if the ads are about packages, boxes or bags — if Christmas comes from a store -- then it seems WMATA approves. But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch,” he added.

The Archdiocese also hoped to place the ads in bus kiosks.

A Metro spokeswoman said the policy banning ads with religious themes took effect two years ago. "In 2015, WMATA changed its advertising policy to prohibit issue-oriented advertising, including political, religious and advocacy advertising. The ad in question was declined because it is prohibited by WMATA’s current advertising guidelines," said Sherri Ly, manager of media relations.

Two lawyers working for the church said its First Amendment rights were being challenged.

“We believe rejection of this ad to be a clear violation of fundamental free speech and a limitation on the exercise of our faith,” said Kim Fiorentino, the Archdiocese of Washington’s Chancellor and General Counsel.

WMATA’s rejection of the Archdiocese’s speech amounts to a violation of the First Amendment, plain and simple. We are bringing this complaint to vindicate the basic principle that 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,” said Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, who is serving as counsel to the Archdiocese in this case.

In court documents, the church said that the goal of its “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign is to encourage people to give to the needy and attend Christmas mass.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com