By Jill Valentine
Five days before Easter, the Town of Berryville ordered Apple Valley Baptist Church, a local Southern Baptist Convention church plant, to remove an Easter sign the church had erected on the corner of Main Street and Buckmarsh Street (Route 340).
The sign, an orange 3 x 8 foot banner secured to its own free standing base, displayed a countdown to Easter Sunday. The church website and meeting location were also listed.
An anonymous complaint left on the town voice mail led the town to look into the matter. It is unclear which town employee listened to the message and no record was kept of the content.
Christy Dunkle, Assistant Town Manager and Town Planner informed the church on Tuesday that the sign violated the town zoning code and would have to be taken down.
According to Dunkle, the sign violated two town zoning ordinances. The sign was erected without securing a sign permit from the town, a violation of section 307.8 and was erected at an off-site location, a violation of section 307.2. The sign did meet the 24 square feet size limitation.
The town zoning code allows an exemption to the permit requirement for temporary religious signs that are placed on the religious organization’s own premises. Apple Valley Baptist currently meets in D.G. Cooley Elementary School and does not own property in the town on which to place a sign.
Rev. Van Welton, Senior Pastor of Apple Valley Baptist Church was bewildered by the matter. “I am surprised that anyone would have complained about the sign so close to Easter. I thought it was a tasteful way to remind people that Easter is approaching.”
Welton, who has served as the pastor since the church’s founding, quickly complied with the order to remove the sign. “We didn’t realize that the sign was violating the law. Since it was on private property and was not a safety hazard, we did not think the church was doing anything wrong.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that local municipalities have the right to legislate time, place and manner restrictions on religious speech, which often includes church signs and other forms of public religious communication. Local officials have to ensure that the regulations are content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leaves ample alternative channels for communication.
While complying with the order, Welton questions whether the town zoning ordinance is constitutionally overbroad and burdensome. “Since we are a church plant and do not own any property, the zoning laws restrict us from placing signs in the community, even on private property, without going through a long approval process, no matter how dignified and attractive the signs may be. We rely on our temporary signage to attract people. I feel like our religious liberty is being impaired.”
Berryville is currently served by five church plants, whose members live and work in the community.