Vienna church says county sign rules violate free speech
By Corinne Reilly,
If the Church of the Good Shepherd wanted to post the Ten Commandments on its sign on Hunter Mill Road, it would take five days to broadcast them all.
That’s because Fairfax County has a commandment of its own: Thou shall not change electronic signs more than twice a day.
So, after the Vienna United Methodist church posted three messages one day last month — offering refuge from the heat, then promoting its Web site and finally listing the time of a group prayer meeting — a zoning inspector called it a sin and hit the church with a warning letter:
“It is noted that the screens changed more than twice in a twenty-four (24) hour period,” the letter stated. “This changeable copy LED sign is considered a prohibited sign.”
The county offered two choices: permanently limit the sign to two message changes per day or remove it altogether.
At a meeting at the end of July, about two months after the church installed the sign, the county and the congregation couldn’t agree on a compromise. So the church, believing that the First Amendment also applies to the word of God, sued last week in federal court in Alexandria, saying the two-message limit violates the church’s rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. The suit says that the county’s ordinance violates a 2000 law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits zoning rules that place undue burdens on religious institutions.
“Under the county’s restrictive policy, the church must pick and choose which of its various functions can be displayed on its sign each day,” the suit says. “Such an impact is a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise.”
County officials declined to comment, as is their policy when a lawsuit is pending. Several members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said they weren’t aware of the two-message limit and didn’t want to discuss it until they learned more.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said.
Neighbors, even those who said they don’t like the sign, said it seemed a waste of government time and resources to worry about the number of messages on a church sign.
“It’s a pretty small fish in the scheme of things,” Steve Hull said.
At the crux of the matter is a zoning ordinance that bans electronic signs that use flashing lights or moving text. But what qualifies as moving? The county defines it as changing a sign’s message more than twice in 24 hours.
“It’s just too restrictive,” Sherry Spinelli, a member of the church’s board of trustees, said this week. “It doesn’t make sense.”
She noted that the church got the proper county permit to erect the $37,000 sign but said it wasn’t aware of the message limit until the county’s letter arrived.
In addition to the lawsuit, a county spokeswoman said staff members also couldn’t discuss the ordinance, including its purpose, history or past cases in which it has been enforced.
The church’s attorney, Michael York, said the limit is applied arbitrarily. Electronic signs that display the time or weather information, for instance, are exempt. Although the county provided the church with examples of past cases in which it has enforced the rule, Spinelli said that in paying closer attention to electronic signs in recent weeks, she has seen several without time or weather information that don’t comply.
She and others with the church think their sign was singled out because someone complained to the county. They suspect it might have been the same person who phoned anonymously a few weeks after the sign’s installation and angrily asked when the church got “that Las Vegas sign.”
The sign isn’t exactly flashy. It stands a few feet off the ground at the edge of the church parking lot, facing the street. The electronic portion is about 2½ feet tall and 6 feet wide. Its green letters, on a black background, can at times be hard to read.
Spinelli noted that on the day the county’s investigator observed the sign, just after the June 29 derecho storm, one of the offending messages invited neighbors without power into the air-conditioned church.
On Monday, the sign’s message was, “8:30 am prayer, 9 am Sunday school, 10 am worship.”
The next day, it read, “Morning prayer, Wednesday at 6:30 am.”
The messages for which the church was cited were similarly staid.
“Welcome, come on in and beat the heat,” read the first.
“Visit us at goodshepherdva.com,” read the second.
And the third advertised a prayer group meeting: “Practicing the Presence, Thurs., July 5, 1 pm.”
The mere fact that the new sign is more noticeable than the old one — its lettering had to be changed manually — is enough to have caused a stir along wooded, winding Hunter Mill Road. The two-lane thoroughfare predates the Civil War and is officially designated a Virginia scenic byway. More than one civic group works to preserve it.
Members of the Hunters Valley Association and the Hunter Mill Defense League said the groups consider the church a good neighbor and have no plans to try to get the sign taken down, but they acknowledged they don’t especially like it either.
“It has a commercial look,” said Hull, of the defense league. The organization would have advocated a more understated sign had it been given a chance to weigh in, he said.
“Our main concern is that we don’t see a proliferation of these kinds of signs,” Bill Cramer, another member, said.
Both groups said the number of different messages displayed in a day was of no concern to them.
Church leaders never imagined the sign might cause problems and that wasn’t their intent, Spinelli said. Rather, it was the exact opposite.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” she said. “That’s what the messages are all about.”
She said the church has no desire to use flashing or scrolling text or to change the sign numerous times each day.
But there might be situations in which more than two messages make sense, she said. Say, for example, that the sign advertises a Boy Scouts meeting in the morning and the next day’s services in the afternoon. What if a neighborhood child is kidnapped later in the day or a major storm comes in? If it abided by the rules, the church wouldn’t be able to post emergency information for the community.
“We just want the freedom to post the messages we see fit,” Spinelli said.