Religious Signs of the Times by Charles Cheves (August 2003)

Late in March, I drove up Miami Avenue, a heavily traveled street that connects a residential area with downtown Venice, Fla., and was startled to see 15 ugly 2×3 foot red-white-and-blue signs on a grassy strip directly adjacent to the curb. The strip, part of the city right-of-way, was in front of the First Baptist Church of Venice. The signs proclaimed “Proud to Be an American,” “Pray for Our Troops,” “God Bless America,” “Pray for Our President,” and last but not least, “Jesus the Supreme Commander.”

During the ten years since I retired after 30 years as a trial lawyer, constantly knocking heads with judges and other lawyers, occasionally using spare time to cross swords with the religious majority (e.g., suing the city to stop its annual city hall Christmas pageant, harassing the local Catholic Bishop with my bullhorn when he tried to conduct an outdoor mass at an abortion clinic), I have mellowed somewhat, learning to enjoy the peace and quiet of retired life. So I tried to ignore the signs for a week. I rationalized that if only the church had planted its tasteless signs across the narrow sidewalk on its own property, the aesthetic nuisance would be almost as bad though not unconstitutional. But Miami Avenue was a convenient route to local businesses, and after being increasingly annoyed by the signs for a week I decided to take some action.

On March 31, I went to City Hall and checked with the zoning department, where I was informed that a permit issued by the city manager was required before placing signs on a right-of-way. The applicable ordinance, which exempted yard sale and political signs, required that an application be submitted at least ten days before the signs went up, and that a $25 application fee was payable unless waived by city council for a nonprofit organization.

I went directly to the office of City Manager George Hunt, who is well known to be a very religious Catholic, and asked to see the Baptist Church permit. His secretary produced a handwritten application for a permit that had been faxed to City Hall by the Baptist preacher. Hunt had marked it “OK,” entering the date (3/26) and his initials, immediately faxing it back to the preacher as a permit.

“What about the ten-day waiting period?” I asked.

“I didn’t think it was necessary,” said Hunt.

“Let me see a receipt for the fee.”

“I waived it,” he replied.

I went home and typed a letter to Hunt advising that the permit was invalid and demanding that the signs be immediately removed from the right-of-way. I also pointed out that all of the signs except “Proud to Be an American” violated the state and federal constitutions by displaying religious slogans on city property. I also prepared and delivered a letter applying for a permit for signs stating “Religion Is Superstition,” “Prayer Is a Waste of Time,” and “There Is No God,” to be placed on Miami Avenue. I enclosed a check for $25. The not-so-funny fun began.

Interviewed by a reporter on the afternoon of April 1, appropriately enough, Hunt glibly and quite falsely stated (let’s make that clear–it was a black lie) that he had considered the signs to be political and thus exempt from the permit requirement.
“We didn’t issue them a permit,” said Hunt. “‘We granted them permission for them to display the signs because we saw them as political.”

Yeah? Well if the signs were political his permission wasn’t needed, and better yet, why did he show me the dated, initialed sketch when I asked to see a permit?

Answering my demand for removal of the signs on April 3, Hunt built a bigger if not more plausible lie, advising that when I was in his office on March 31 he had forgotten that on March 26 he had decided the signs were political and exempt. But give George credit for lying impartially. He returned my check, saying that he considered my signs to be political as well. It seems that for many Christians, what passes for logic can be every bit as irrational as religious beliefs. And apparently the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, including the one dealing with bearing false witness, is to decorate court houses and public schools, and not to provide ground rules for life. I sent the check back to him.

I attended the next city council meeting on April 8, and read a brief statement accusing Hunt of illegally issuing the permit to the Baptists and then lying about it, and asked Council to revoke the permit.

Operating with the divine guidance solicited by the clerk, who serves as chaplain and opens each meeting with a prayer, council members gave me blank looks. They did nothing. They didn’t discuss the matter with Hunt, or ask him any questions, or ask the advice of the city attorney, who is afraid of his shadow and speaks only when spoken to. I could have stayed outside and addressed my comments to a lamp post.

By this time Hunt had decided my signs were not political after all, and issued a permit just as he had for the church, dating and initialing my letter application. The letter specified that my signs would be on Miami Avenue, and he did not strike that, but he did put “on site” next to his initials which he may have meant to limit my signs to the right-of-way in front my house on a quiet residential street.

I chose to ignore that ambiguous and improper attempt to limit my rights, and on Sunday morning I planted my signs in front of the First Baptist Church. They were promptly uprooted. Having now had my Irish stirred up, I planned my revenge for Easter Sunday. The Baptists habitually conduct a sunrise service in a public park at the Venice Jetties, a pass from the bay to the Gulf, while another group prays at the City beach parking lot. I had never interfered with these flagrant church-state violations, probably mostly because they took place at 6 AM and I’m getting lazy in my old age. But annoyed as I was, I got up at 5 AM on Easter, went down to the airport and cranked up my Cessna,and, perfectly within the law, flew up and down the beach at an altitude of 500 feet, barely offshore, almost directly over the Jesus-praising early-risers, wasting some gas by pushing in the throttle and jacking up the RPMs to make a little extra noise.

Then I went home, put a sign with big block letters–“THERE IS NO GOD”–in the side window of my car and parked it with the doors locked alongside the curb directly across from the front door of the Baptist Church. I am happy to say that the Baptists were well-behaved, not keying my VW Beetle, but they did leave it covered with religious tracts and prayer notes.

The church permit had been good for three weeks, expiring at midnight on April 16. The signs were still there the next morning. But by that time, City Hall and the Baptists had had their fill of me, and when I complained to the code enforcement officer, the signs were off the right-of-way in a few hours, though a few of them, including “Jesus the Supreme Commander,” were set up across the sidewalk on church property.

The low-class tent revival creationist variety of Baptists have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention since I was brought up in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., where we managed to get through Pearl Harbor and 31Ú2 years of global war without defacing church property with garish, tasteless signs.

Charles Cheves, a retired attorney, has been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1984.

Freedom From Religion Foundation