Government has no business dictating the content posted on an electronic sign belonging to a house of worship, but that's exactly what Fairfax County zoning officials tried to do to the United Methodist Church of the Good Shepherd last month. Refusing to bow to this unconstitutional assault on their First Amendment rights, the Vienna-based congregation sued the Fairfax County Board in federal court on Aug. 20.
The lawsuit provides a disturbing glimpse of a county government ignorant of its residents' constitutional rights. Though the lawsuit and the ensuing publicity shamed the county into dismissing the citation against Good Shepherd late last week, that is hardly the end of the matter.
On July 3, church leaders posted a message on their newly purchased and properly permitted electronic sign along Hunter Mill Road. It was directed at neighbors who were still without power in 100-degree temperatures four days after the June 29 derecho: "WELCOME, Come on in and beat the heat," the sign said.
The church's good deed did not go unpunished. With tens of thousands of county residents in the dark and Hunter Mill Road closed due to fallen trees, a Fairfax County code compliance officer somehow had nothing better to do than conduct surveillance of the private sign offering neighbors of the air-conditioned church a respite from the scorching heat.
On July 19, church officials were startled to receive a letter from the county's Department of Code Compliance, informing them they were in violation for posting two other messages the same day. They were ordered to immediately demolish the $37,000 sign or "permanently" limit the number of messages displayed on it to two every 24-hour period.
The church decided to fight back. As the lawsuit points out, the ordinance limiting the church to two messages per day is "a content-based restraint" on free-speech rights "unrelated to any compelling government interest." Indeed, there is no reason the church shouldn't be able to change the message on its own sign as many times per day as it wants.
The Fairfax county attorney's office has now reportedly asked church officials to agree to change the sign only at some undefined "reasonable interval." But there is a larger principle at stake here. Other residents can expect similar unconstitutional harassment as long as this silly law remains on the books, especially in a county whose officials demonstrably have so little common sense.