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Alabama AG Marshall leads SCOTUS brief in religious freedom case

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, with the backing of 26 other state attorney generals, filed a brief last week before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Florida-based synagogue whose religious ads were rejected by a local transit authority.

The case stems from an incident in 2020 where Young Israel, a synagogue in Tampa, Florida, submitted an advertisement for a “Chanukah on Ice” event to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to be run on public buses. The HCTA, having prohibited religious advertising since 2013, rejected the ad.

The advertisement proposed by the Tampa-based Orthodox Jewish synagogue Young Israel.

In turn, Young Israel in 2021 filed a lawsuit in federal court against the HART on the grounds that the transit authority had violated the group’s First Amendment rights, and that its policies were applied inconsistently.

“By unlawfully denying a Jewish synagogue’s proposed holiday advertisement solely because it was religious, the transit authority brazenly targeted religious speech as the object of its discrimination,” Marshall said Monday in a statement

“Our 26-state coalition recognizes that such discrimination is a direct attack on the First Amendment, and we look forward to continuing our support of Young Israel.”

In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Florida’s 11th Circuit ruled in favor of Young Israel, and that the transit authority’s policy regarding bans on religious ads was unlawful. The transit authority appealed the decision, kicking it up to the Supreme Court.

In that case, the transit authority had defended its policy prohibiting religious ads, arguing that the policy was “intended to maintain a safe environment on its vehicles without unnecessary controversy, risks of violence, or risks of vandalism while maintaining employee morale.”

In support of Young Israel’s charge that the transit authority applied its policies inconsistently, Marshall went on to note that HART had approved another group’s ad proposal for a ‘Winter Village’ event, and that the “singular difference – that one ad was religious and the other was not – led the government entity to reject ‘Chanukah on Ice’ and accept ‘Winter Village,’ the statement read from Marshall’s office.

Marshall has previously led two briefs in support of Young Israel before the 11th Circuit, also with the backing of a multi-state coalition.

The ultimate ruling in the case could have wide implications, with transit systems in Texas, New York and Washington, D.C., also having similar policies banning issue-based or religious advertisements.

The states joining Marshall in his latest brief with the Supreme Court include Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

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