SHICKSHINNY – A former Shickshinny Borough council member
has lost her fight to have a sign that was approved and installed by the town, which gave directions
to a church, declared a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First
“The plaintiff in this case claimed that, because the sign
was erected on borough property, by borough employees, that Shickshinny,
Pennsylvania, was either ‘endorsing’ or promoting religion,” Karla L. Chaffee of
Robinson & Cole LLP told the Pennsylvania
Plaintiff Francene Tearpock-Martini, who said she could see
the sign from her home, filed the lawsuit after she voted against the
installation of the sign. Despite Tearpock-Martini’s dissenting vote, the
borough council approved the sign, which featured pictures of a cross and a
Bible and read “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You!”
The plaintiff argued that, since Shickshinny employees had a
hand in installing the sign and borough concrete might have been used in the
installation, the sign was not legal.
The sign was erected in a right-of-way belonging to
Shickshinny Borough and also included an arrow directing drivers to the church.
“The fact that the sign was merely a directional sign and
was not, on its face, relaying a message for the borough was likely a big
difference in the court’s mind,” Chaffee said.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of
Pennsylvania originally approved Shickshinny’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in
2013, citing statute-of-limitations issues. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s order in connection with Tearpock-Martini’s equal
protection and free speech claims, but overturned the lower court’s ruling on
the Establishment Clause claim.
The district court subsequently ruled that the sign in
question could be classified as “religious display.” However, the court said a
reasonable person would not think that the borough was endorsing religion through
placement of the sign. Instead, the court said people would simply view it as “a
sign to a church and nothing more.”
“Since a common observer would not be able to tell that the
borough had anything to do with the sign, there was no endorsement of religion,”
In addition, the court ruled that there was a “secular
purpose” to the borough’s installation of the sign.
“I think it may have been a stretch to some extent to
consider the permitting of a directional sign to a church to be a ‘religious
display,’” Chaffee said, “but the court found so nevertheless.”
Chaffee said many
municipalities allow directional signs to places of worship, and municipalities
consider various types of applications by religious groups for structures,
signs and other things.
“It may have been a slippery slope for municipalities if the
court had come out differently,” Chaffee said. “Government review and approval
of these types of applications, without more, generally does not violate the
Establishment Clause, otherwise any municipal approval of a religious
application would be found to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.”
Chaffee also pointed out that the case did not address the
“government speech doctrine,” although she said addressing that doctrine would
have been appropriate. Chaffee said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pleasant Gove v. Summum that allowing a
Ten Commandments monument in a public park would constitute government speech.
As a result, the court ruled that refusing to erect the monument did not
violate a petitioner’s right to free speech.