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Cary McMullen: Here’s your sign: follow the rules

If  ever you want to start a controversy, there’s no better way than to put the words “God” and “America” together on a sign and put it where everyone can see it. There’s sure to be a controversy about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, whether America is a Christian or a secular nation, whether religious expression should be exempt from laws of general applicability, and so on.

In the town of Bartow, the Polk County seat, the city’s code enforcement officers recently handed out warnings to homeowners with temporary yard signs. The signs, which are used to advertise everything from garage sales to junk cars, are illegal in Bartow, but for the faithful, these are not ordinary signs. Bearing a flag and a cross, they say “God bless America.”

The warnings, asking residents to take down the signs, caused an uproar. City hall was besieged with complaints, demanding to know why Bartow’s government was against God blessing America.

As it turns out, the signs had been distributed around the Fourth of July by First Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Rev. Ron Burks, is known for being outspoken about faith in the public square. You would think that a church, of all institutions, would be law abiding, but never mind. It was a patriotic gesture, Burks told The Ledger of Lakeland.

“We had done similar signs around Christmas that said ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ and we saw this as an opportunity to show that we are patriotic and we believe that God does bless America,” he said. “I don’t understand why that sign is so offensive. We aren’t trying to stir up controversy. We are just trying to stand up for what we believe in a quiet way. To me, God bless America is as much a part of Bartow as a pickup truck, jacked up, with knobby tires on it.”

There’s a metaphor for you.

The city let the signs go for awhile before issuing the warnings. Code enforcement officer Ken Wiggins said, “We have a little latitude, but we can’t pick and choose which provisions of the sign ordinance we’re going to enforce.” He tried to make the point that the message on the sign didn’t matter as far as the code is concerned. “It doesn’t matter if it says ‘God bless America’ or ‘God is dead,’” he said.

Evangelical Christians have become pretty militant about public expressions of faith in recent years, based on the perception that they are somehow being stifled by a politically correct culture, and the online comments below the Ledger article were illustrative. The prevailing sentiment was that these signs were somehow exempt from the law.

“‘Garage Sale’ is a temporary sign, ‘God Bless America’ is not,” said one reader.

Mayor James Clement responded by risking a code violation himself, planting one of the signs in his yard. “There’s nothing in the ordinance that defines how long you can keep a sign up before or after a holiday,” he said defensively.

You could see how this was going to turn out. On Monday, the city commission suspended enforcement of the rule on temporary signs until “contradictions in the code” could be resolved. The 200 people who showed up to give commissioners a piece of their mind were mollified.

The resolution no doubt satisfies local opinion, but there is a larger point. First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not trampled because Christians who break a rule that applies to everyone are cited for it. Not even Antonin Scalia would protect First Baptist on this one.

I would absolutely defend Burks and his fellow believers if they want to stand on a street corner and sing hymns and preach the gospel, assuming they’re not disturbing the peace. But when Christians or any other group demand an exemption from the law just because they believe their message is true, they invite the animosity and contempt of society.

The apostle Paul had some advice for the folks at First Baptist: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”

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