On The Front Lines
VICTORY: Harrisonburg Officials Rescind Threat of Criminal Charges Against Local Church Over Its Display of Pro-Life Messages on Private Property
HARRISONBURG, Va. — The City of Harrisonburg, Virginia, has rescinded a threat made by zoning officials to levy criminal charges at a local church over its display of pro-life messages on private property. The city’s reversal came after attorneys for The Rutherford Institute intervened on behalf of Valley Church of Christ, which had been ordered to take down signs on its property that quote Mother Teresa and the Bible on the sanctity of human life. In coming to the defense of the Harrisonburg church, Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out that the City’s actions constituted discrimination based on the content of the church’s signs, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
“Under the First Amendment, the government has no authority to pick and choose what type of speech it approves,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While we are pleased that Harrisonburg city officials were quick to set things right in this matter, this is merely one example out of a hundreds of incidents taking place across the country in which speech and expressive activities that the government perceives as controversial, politically incorrect or unpopular are criminalized, caged, censored or silenced.”
Valley Church of Christ is located at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Acorn Drive in the City of Harrisonburg. To show its strong religious beliefs in the sanctity of human life, the church put up two signs on a chain link fence running along the Acorn Drive side of the property. One sign shows a fetus cradled in a pair of hands with a quote from Mother Teresa: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” The other sign quotes Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the Womb I Knew You,” with a picture of the face of a baby.
On April 20, 2015, the church received a letter from the City’s zoning inspector advising the church that a complaint had been received about the signs and that the church was in violation of a section of the City’s sign ordinance which prohibits banners, pennants and flags. However, the section cited by the City contains several exemptions from the prohibition, allowing national flags, flags of political subdivisions, corporate/business flags, flags of civic and charitable organization, and banners pertaining to holidays or civic events. The City’s letter ordered that the church correct the “violation” within 10 days or it could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
In its letter to the City on behalf of the church, The Rutherford Institute pointed out that the City Code section relied upon in its letter to the church makes content-based distinctions on those banners and flags that are allowable and those that are not. “This kind of preference for banners that express certain messages and discrimination against banners that express other messages is precisely the kind of content-based regulation of speech the First Amendment prohibits,” the Institute’s letter contended. The letter also cited court decisions which have found similar laws regulating the display of flags and banners unconstitutional.