Officials have rescinded their threat to levy criminal charges against a local church over its display of pro-life messages on private property.
On April 20, 2015, The Virginia church located in the City of Harrisburg was ordered by the to take down the two pro-life signs which were displayed on their property.
Valley Church of Christ 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.
Life Dynamics contacted the church for pictures of the pro-life signs as they were displayed and this is what they sent us:
The Rutherford Institute, a legal firm which supports life, sent a letter to the city on behalf of the church.
Now, the City of Harrisonburg, Virginia, has rescinded their threat after Rutherford attorneys pointed out that the City’s actions constituted discrimination based on the content of the church’s signs, which is a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.
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.
“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,” Whitehead stated.