Pennsylvania Record

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Third Circuit says sign pointing to Shickshinny church can stay

By Shanice Harris | Feb 2, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently reached a decision in the case of Tearpock-Martini v. Shickshinny Borough earlier this month, upholding the district court’s decision that means a borough directional sign pointing to a church can remain.

Last July, the Pennsylvania borough of Shickshinny installed a right-of-way sign that was designed and produced by a third party. The council-approved sign read “Bible Church Welcomes You!,” according to previous reports, and contained the images of a cross and Bible.

The sign also had an arrow pointing travelers toward the church. The plaintiff in the case, Francene Tearpock-Martini, is a former member of the council who voted against the installation of the sign.

”You wouldn’t expect the government to be in the business of putting up signs for churches,” Brian Connolly, attorney at Otten Johnson Law Offices in Denver, told the Pennsylvania Record.  “Although, if you look at the background of it … if you understand the background of it, I don’t think it’s a surprising. The borough was the one that put the sign up, but it was at the request of the church and it was a process that the church went through that allowed it to go up.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the directional sign that contained images of a cross and Bible did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court found that the sign did not constitute an endorsement of religion because it was just a directional sign pointing at a church.

Tearpock-Martini appealed the decision, but ultimately the Third Circuit on Jan. 4 upheld the district court decision.

“She historically was a council member of the borough. My guess is that there’s probably some political background to that, in terms of her relationship with the remainder of the borough council,” Connolly said. “She also lives across the street from the sign."

The plaintiff tried arguing the fact that the only other sign in the borough right-of-way was a sign pointing toward a boat launch and that the borough had not approved a post office sign in the right-of-way. The court found her argument unconvincing and noted that the post office never applied for a sign.

The courts did not believe that the sign was an example of an endorsement of the church from the council. 

Cases involving the mix between church and state are very common in court. Many public buildings find themselves in hot water because it.

“There was a case in New Mexico where a local government had put up a Ten Commandments monument in front of City Hall,” Connolly said. “In that case, the circuit court of appeals found the monument as an endorsement of religion.”

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U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania