Sunday, September 2, 2012

The War on Religious Messaging

In recent months we have heard a lot about the war on religion that has been a hallmark of the current federal administration. It seems that war may be tricking down to the state and county levels. On August 20 a church in Vienna, Virginia, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Fairfax County Board. The subject if the lawsuit is this sign:

The reason that the church has sued over its neon sign has to do with an obscure zoning law that reared its ugly head about 2 months ago. It was shortly after the severe storm barreled its way through the Washington metro area on Friday, June 29. They have called it a derecho, but by any name it was a devastating force of nature. It left thousands without power, many for up to ten days or more.

I recall that when my husband and I went to church on the Sunday after the storm, our pastor joked that a lot of people were probably there to get out of the heat. Apparently such humor must have been common with clergy of various denominations, as the Methodist Church of the Good Shepherd posted a message on its brand new electronic sign that could be seen from the highway. The sign said: "WELCOME, Come on in and beat the heat." As one newspaper noted, "The church's good deed did not go unpunished."

The church had secured the necessary permits for the $37,000 sign before having it installed earlier this year. Until the time of the derecho, there had been no problems with its messages. After the storm, the road that the church is on was closed in places due to trees and debris blocking the roadway. The church followed up its WELCOME message with one that said, “Also visit us at” and shortly after that a third message stating “Practicing the Presence Thurs., July 5, 1 p.m.” 

It was then that the county zoning board sprang into action to protect the citizens of the county from overzealous message posters. It is reported that the county board had staked out the church as a result of the first sign it posted because it deemed the sign to be offensive. Whatever the reason, the church soon received a notice from the county board telling it that it was in violation of the obscure code provision that holds a sign owner in violation of an ordinance that allows “any movable copy sign … to change messages a maximum of two times within a 24-hour period.”

So, because the church dared to post THREE messages within 24-hours, it was told to immediately limit its messages to two per 24-hours OR demolish its sign completely. Given these two options, the church opted for a THIRD -- file a lawsuit based on violation of its First Amendment right to free speech.

How did the county respond to this challenge to its fascist code provisions? It backed down, and a week later, after "reevaluating" its actions, withdrew the code violation charges. It now asks that the church only change the sign a reasonable number of times.

It is unclear whether the church will drop its lawsuit now that the county board dropped the charges against the church. The court could find the point of the lawsuit's issue to be moot if the church does not drop the lawsuit since the zoning violation charges have been dropped by the county board. But unless and until the code is changed, other sign-owners will have to be on the lookout for the "counters" whose job it is to stakeout churches and report to the county board how many times their message signs has been changed in a 24-hour period

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