The City of Harrisonburg, Virginia, has formally withdrawn the threat of criminal charges against a local church for displaying pro-life signs.
The city originally claimed that Valley Church of Christ was guilty of violating local ordinances by hanging two signs on its fence. One pictured a fetus being cradled and included a quote from Mother Theresa, while another displayed a passage from the Bible along with a picture of a baby.
It was unclear who made the initial complaint, with media reports merely noting that neighbors had drawn the authorities’ attention to the signs after feeling they were offensive.
However, in a statement, the city said it did not want to regulate the content of the sign. Instead, it was merely interested in confirming that the materials used complied with its ordinances.
On April 19, the city sent a formal letter to the church, requesting that the signs be removed or church representatives could face fines or imprisonment.
The church called on the Rutherford Institute, a pro-bono law firm specializing in first amendment rights, to respond to the city.
“Under the First Amendment, the government has no authority to pick and choose what type of speech it approves,” said John Whitehead from the institute. “This is in line with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s statement: ‘The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands’.”
Whitehead responded to the city in a letter.
“This kind of preference for banners that express certain messages and discrimination against banners that express other messages is precisely the kind of content-based regulation of speech the First Amendment prohibits,” wrote Whitehead.
After reviewing the letter, the city attorney advised Harrisonburg not to press the matter any further, and on May 4 the threats of criminal action were formally dropped.
"While we are pleased that Harrisonburg city officials were quick to set things right in this matter, this is merely one example out of hundreds of incidents taking place across the country in which speech and expressive activities that the government perceives as controversial, politically incorrect or unpopular are criminalized, caged, censored or silenced,” Whitehead commented in reaction to the decision.