Church seeks exemption from sign ordinance, but none is needed

Beverly Bryant - October 24, 2016 10:02 pm

Members of First Lutheran Church speak with City Manager Craig Stephenson, far right, after Mondays City Commission meeting.

Several members of First Lutheran Church attended Monday’s City Commission meeting to hear church president David Zimmerman ask the commission for a religious exemption to the city’s sign ordinance.

Zimmerman brought a large feather-shaped sign to the Commission Chamber, along with smaller signs used during the Christmas season. He spoke during the public comments section of the commission meeting, stating there was “more to it than advertising.”

“The signs are worship art and part of the fulfillment of the Great Commission” for Christians, Zimmerman said. He said  the smaller sign was used for the First Lutheran Christmas Market, which had 2,000 visitors last year and raised $25,000  in revenue. He said that money provided $10,000 in scholarships for First Lutheran School, as well as other church functions.

“We think they are appropriate Christian symbols,” Zimmerman said. “We were cited twice last year and we want to claim our First Amendment free exercise clause. These represent inner thoughts, whether from the Holy Spirit, our conscience, or our biggest dreams.”

Zimmerman said other flags, such as the American flag, city flags and even ISIS flags are exempt from the ordinance.

“I fear it puts the city at risk for not having religious exemptions,” he said.

City Manager Craig Stephenson was quick to respond to Zimmerman’s position, producing a press release immediately following the meeting. The three-page press release states the city’s sign ordinance was drafted over a two-year period.

He listed several points that were expressly  included in the drafting of the ordinance by city staff and the Planning Commission, including “(to) ensure adequate opportunity for persons to exercise their right of free speech by display of messages on signs.”

He also cited a portion of the ordinance, Municipal Section 11-12-25, which is titled “Protection of First Amendment Rights.” It states that “Any sign allowed under this chapter may contain, in lieu of any other copy, any otherwise lawful noncommercial message that does not direct attention to a business, activity conducted, or product sold or offered at a location not on the same premises where such business sign is located.”

Stephenson’s release said the first mention of signage in the Ponca City Municipal Code is found in 5-4-3 under the “License Application Procedure,” which requires the content of signage be provided in connection with a license for “barterers, outdoor sellers, peddlers and solicitors.”

“Clearly churches using a sign for religious or celebratory purposes are not affected,” Stephenson wrote in the release. “Only when they enter into commercial transactions would they come into the scope of this ordinance. This ordinance has been on the books since 2003 and is consistently interpreted in exactly this way. Similarly, Ponca City Municipal Code 5-4-14 is also limited to ‘outdoor sellers.’ Again, churches’ religious messages are not impacted.”

Stephenson also addressed the issues of visual clutter and driver distracting signs.

“On the issue of visual clutter, any person placing signage on a corner lot must comply with Ponca City Municipal Code 6-2A-4, which creates a sight triangle at the intersection of two streets. The size of this visually clear area is determined by the speed limits of the adjacent streets, with larger clear areas associated with faster speeds,” Stephenson wrote.

The intention is to make sure drivers have a reasonable opportunity to see cross traffic and reduce collisions, he said.

The municipal code, 11-12-5, states certain kinds of signs are prohibited to all people, whether religious or otherwise, Stephenson said. Those include signs that distract drivers with things like flames, mirrors, flashing lights and smoke, or  those associated with clutter, litter, nuisances and safety. This group includes garage sale signs placed off premises, vehicle mounted signs, unsafe or dilapidated signs and others. Also not allowed are those that  imitate traffic control signs or those placed on the property of others without permission.

The code also regulates the location of all signs to assure they are placed on the property of the sign’s owner and not interfering with traffic and safety. The sizes of signs also are regulated.

Finally, Stephenson’s press release states:

“The sign ordinance also lists numerous exceptions in Section 11-12-4, such as exemption No. 5: ‘Flag, emblem, pennant or insignia of any nation, organization of nations, state, county or city; any religious, civic or fraternal organization; or any educational institution,’ and exemption No. 14: ‘Signs erected during the Christmas holidays as identified of temporary sales areas for Christmas trees and other holiday oriented items. Signs shall not be erected before Thanksgiving Day and shall be removed prior to New Year’s Day.'”

Stephenson stated churches are neither favored nor discriminated against.

“Thus we have not promoted an establishment of a religion, nor have we opposed such a religion. We remain neutral as is required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Oklahoma Constitution Articles 1 and 2,” Stephenson said.

Development Services Director Chris Henderson said the church was never cited for sign violations. He said city staff had two meetings with church members to explain the sign ordinance requirements.


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