Court finds no religious endorsement by Shickshinny over sign giving directions to church

By Carrie Salls | Sep 13, 2016

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 Amendment.  

“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 Record.


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,” Chaffee said.


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.

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Robinson+Cole U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Harrisburg Division

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