Prince William homeowner, neighborhood group at odds over Jesus Christmas sign

Melanie Henderson at her home in Prince William County, with the sign in question.
Melanie Henderson at her home in Prince William County, with the sign in question. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 8:40 PM

Donald Henderson knows not to overdo it on Christmas decorations. A week after Thanksgiving, Henderson placed a tasteful wreath on the front door, strung a few lights along the front porch railing, and, just to elevate his game a notch or two, plopped an inflatable Mickey and Minnie Mouse on his front lawn, wishing all "Season's Greetings."

Tucked behind Mickey and Minnie stood one last touch, a small blue sign that reads, "Happy Birthday Jesus, Come Let Us Adore Him."

In this era of culture wars and all-powerful homeowners associations, what came next seems all but inevitable: When Henderson opened his mail on Christmas Eve, he found a letter from the New Bristow Village management company informing him that he had violated one of the development's covenants.

The problem was not with the inflatable. Although the sign marking Jesus's birthday had been up for three weeks, the Community Management Corp. ordered that it be removed. No signs - except for real estate or security signs - are allowed in the Prince William County development. Henderson was given 15 days to comply.

But Henderson, a federal government employee, is keeping the Jesus sign up until Jan. 1, which is when he always removes his holiday decorations. And he intends to post the sign again next year.

"When I got the letter on Christmas Eve, I called my wife over and said, 'You're never going to believe this,' " Henderson, 38, said. "I figured we couldn't put up commercial or political signs, but certainly the association could use discretion when it came to religion.

"What really bothered me was that they sent it on Christmas. I consider myself a man of faith. The sign shows to all of our neighbors what Christ means to us."

Carol Piering, a spokeswoman for the management company, said the sign's religious message had nothing to do with the decision to enforce the rules. "The content of the sign is not why the letter was sent," she said, acknowledging that the warning could have been mailed on a different date. "The letter was ill-timed, and for that we absolutely apologize."

She said Mr. and Mrs. Mouse are not subject to the association's rules. "I am going to make the assumption that because it was an inflatable, then it wasn't a sign," she said.

Sign battles have been a mainstay of suburban culture for years. Several state courts have ruled that by agreeing to abide by homeowners association rules, home buyers relinquish some constitutional rights. But there are legal limits on homeowners associations. They can't exclude residents based on race, for instance. And they can't bar display of the U.S. flag, although they can dictate how flags are flown.

"This is a matter of a private contract, and HOAs are entitled to have declarations, and whatever those declarations are make up the laws of that community," said Mike Inman, a Virginia Beach lawyer and co-publisher of the Virginia Condominium & Homeowners' Association Law Blog. "But it would seem to me that the 'Happy Birthday Jesus' item was not necessarily a sign, but yard decor for the season."

Julie Dean, architectural and covenants administrator for New Bristow Village, said she had no choice but to warn the Hendersons after her boss noticed it while driving through the development.

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