A Florida city threatened residents with a $25-a-day fine if they didn’t take down their “God Bless America” signs, then backtracked when outraged citizens packed a city commission meeting.
The controversy began around the Fourth of July when homeowners throughout Bartow, Florida, placed God Bless America signs on their lawns, as allowed by the city on a temporary basis around holidays. The signs were distributed by a local congregation, First Baptist Church.
But many citizens, not seeing the faith-based message as solely holiday-centric, decided to keep the signs up far longer, and the city began issuing warnings to take down the signs. In one month alone a fine for one sign would have amounted to around $750 – a significant fee to express one’s faith and patriotism.
City authorities at first said the signs violated a ban on all lawn signs. Citizens then jammed a Bartow City Commission meeting in October and demanded change.
“Having a sign in my yard that says that God Bless America is a daily reminder to me that I know God will bless America and that gives me hope,” said Brenda Serpas of Bartow.
Bartow Mayor James Clements, though, said the situation would be resolved and that the signs could remain up – at least for now.
“The current situation involving the God Bless America signs was in no way intended to address the content or message being portrayed on those signs,” Clements said during the meeting. “Despite recent media reports and social media misinformation to the contrary, the words ‘God Bless America’ are not prohibited in the city of Bartow.”
The city lifted the ban for six months, giving officials more time to find a solution.
Marvin Pittman, a deacon at First Baptist Church in Bartow, told the Florida Baptist Witness that in one neighborhood “almost everyone had” a sign.
“I’m just tired of folks who can tell people what they can and can’t do,” Pittman said.
The controversy is only one example of homeowners arguing their freedom of speech and religion have been violated. Among others:
- A homeowners’ association in Katy, Texas, made Meagan Schmidt take down a sign advertising her house of worship, the Journey Church. Fox 26, a Dallas TV station, reported that the Highland Creek Homeowners association bans any display in a yard or outside the home. That includes American flags (even for veterans) and statues of the Virgin Mary. The association tried to claim that Schmidt’s sign violated its ban on commercial signs.
- A condominium homeowners’ association in Huntsville, Alabama, made U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon Weir take down an American flag flying in front of his home.
- During last years’ elections the Hudson Pointe Homeowners Association in Queensbury, New York, fined Peter and Peg Jasinski around $1,400. The couple’s crime? Placing signs endorsing a congressional candidate in front of their home. The association fined the Jasinskis, who are active Republicans, $5 a day for putting out signs endorsing candidate Matt Doheny.
This isn’t the first time, the Jasinskis have been targeted by the Homeowners’ Association. In 2010 the organization threatened to put a lien on their home because they had put a sign promoting U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson in their yard. The association also threatened to foreclose on their property.
The Jasinskis contend that the homeowners’ association may not even have had jurisdiction over the signs. The signs were placed on a strip of grass next to a street that might have been property of the town of Queensbury in upstate New York. The Jasinskis were particularly upset because other signs, including “for sale” signs, are allowed in their subdivision.