This post is co-authored with Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, contributor author to the Rocky Mountain Sign Law (www.rockymountainsignlaw.com) blog.
Late last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that directional signs to a church, which contained images of a cross and bible, did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The borough of Shickshinny, Pennsylvania installed a sign in a borough right-of-way that was designed and produced by a third party and which read “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You!” The signs contained images of a cross and bible, and a directional arrow pointing motorists to the church. The sign was approved by the borough council. The plaintiff in the case, Francene Tearpock-Martini, is a former borough council member who voted against the sign. The sign is within sight of her house.
In 2013, the district court granted the borough’s motion to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds. In 2014, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s Equal Protection and Free Speech claims, but reversed on the plaintiff’s Establishment Clause claim.
On summary judgment, the district court held that the sign constituted a “religious display” because it contains religious symbols. The court analyzed the Establishment Clause claim under what is known as the “endorsement” of religion test, which asks “whether a reasonable observer of the sign who is familiar with the history and context of the display would perceive it as an endorsement of religion.” The court found that the sign did not constitute an endorsement of religion by the borough because it was merely a sign pointing in the direction of a church and a reasonable observer would perceive it as “a sign to a church and nothing more.” The court rejected the claim that government employees’ assistance in placing the sign, as well as the fact that the borough may have used its own cement for the sign, was an illegal endorsement of religion.
Out of an “abundance of caution,” the court also reviewed the Establishment Clause claim under a separate test established by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The Lemon test looks to whether: (a) the government practice has a secular purpose; (b) the principal effect of the government’s action either advances or inhibits religion; and (c) the government created an excessive entanglement of government with religion. Here, the court found that the church sign passed this test as well – there was a secular purpose (providing direction to people); the principal effect did not inhibit but only very slightly advanced religion by providing directions to the church; and the government was not entangled with religion, as it only approved the sign and helped install it.
Interestingly, the decision in Tearpock-Martini did not address the government speech doctrine, which would have been highly appropriate in this case given the factual similarities to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. In that case, the Supreme Court held that a Ten Commandments monument in a public park constituted government speech and was therefore not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.
Tearpock-Martini v. Shickshinny Borough, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2016 WL 3959034 (M.D. Pa. Jul. 22, 2016).
*Brian J. Connolly and Otten, Johnson, Robinson, Neff + Ragonetti are not affiliated with Robinson + Cole, LLP.