Suit Over Uninvited Church Sign Revived

     (CN) – A woman who says a Baptist church posted an “eyesore” sign near her home may have a civil rights case against her town in Pennsylvania, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
     The pastor of a church in Shickshinny Borough first informed Francene Tearpock-Martini that he planned to advertise alongside her property in 2008, according to the complaint.
     Within a month, the borough council of which Tearpock-Martini was a member voted to approve the sign’s installation on the state- and borough-owned rights of way bordering her property, which she has owned since May 2005.
     “Bible Baptist Church welcomes you!” the sign reads, with an arrow with “1 block” written on it, plus images of a gold cross and a white Bible.
     Unable to interfere with the sign’s placement, Tearpock-Martini placed her own sign in front. “This church sign violates my rights as a taxpayer & property owner,” her sign states. ‘Residential neighborhoods are not zoned for advertisement signs!”
     Shickshinny’s code enforcement officer Tearpock-Martini’s sign taken down and, when the church sign fell down, the town reinstalled it with heavy equipment and poured concrete. The borough has allegedly ratified the sign’s installation and its maintenance repeatedly.
     Tearpock-Martini sued Shickshinny and four council members in 2012, claiming violations of her rights to equal protection, establishment of religion and free speech under the First and 14th Amendments.
     U.S. District Judge James Munley dismissed the case last year, however, after finding that the statute of limitations had lapsed.
     In reviving some of Tearpock-Martini’s claims Monday, the 3rd Circuit found that she may have a case under the continuing-violation doctrine of the establishment clause.
     “Tearpock-Martini’s challenge is to a still-existing monument that communicates anew an allegedly unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government each time it is viewed,” Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote for the three-judge panel. “Strict application of the statutory limitations period both serves no salutary purpose and threatens to immunize indefinitely the presence of an allegedly unconstitutional display.”
     The Philadelphia-based court nevertheless affirmed dismissal of Tearpock-Martini’s other constitutional claims.
     “With respect to her other claims – that the refusal of Shickshinny to allow her to erect her own nearby sign violated her rights to free speech and equal protection of the law – we conclude that Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations does apply, and will affirm the District Court’s dismissal of those claims on limitations grounds,” Vanaskie wrote.

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