Monday, June 26, 2006

What's this all about?

On June 2, 2006, one day before Faith and Action unveiled a sculpture of the Ten Commandments in our front garden across the street from the US Supreme Court, the Government of the District of Columbia hand-delivered notice to me that we must apply for a permit or face possible fines and even forced sale of our property.

They cited a law that controlled any "obstruction to travel." Since the Ten Commandments sculpture sits in our elevated front garden, we presumed the law did not apply to us. The only "travel" that occurs in our garden is done by squirrels! The other point to this is that we knew full well that other property owners on Capitol Hill are allowed to have whatever they like in their gardens--and they are not asked to apply and pay for permits. Neither are they cited for not having the permits. The only conclusion we could logically draw was that we were being singled out because of the nature of our garden ornament. That is patent "content based discrimination" and it's against the law.

So, we proceeded to unveil our monument in a dedicatory service on June 3, in spite of the order. We immediately secured a first-class legal team headed by Alabama attorney Phil Jaurgui, president of the Judicial Action Group with backing from the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty law firm founded by Dr. James Dobson, Rev. D. James Kennedy and others. The American Center for Law and Justice also did some background work for us.

Several weeks went by, during which the Department of Transportation, charged with monitoring compliance to public space permits, the city administrator and a spokesperson for Mayor Anthony Williams made contradictory statements about what would happen next. Some said we're in for a long legal battle, while others said we'd get our permit.

A number of phone calls were exchanged between our lawyers and the city officials. Meanwhile, we launched a "Preserve the Commandments on Capitol Hill" petition drive with a goal of reaching 20,000 signatures by the District's arbitrary June 30 deadline.

Then, this afternoon, June 26, Washington's WTOP Radio published a report on their website ( that the DC Government had decided that our monument was an issue of free speech. Therefore, we didn't need a permit.

That was a surprise to us, since we still don't have any official confirmation of it. It amounts to third-person hearsay. An unnamed WTOP reporter is quoting an unnamed source inside the Department of Transportation who indicates that the June 2 threatening letter will be rescinded. The monument will be allowed to stand without a permit.

We don't know if this is true. The District has not communicated with us. We would welcome their formal and official determination in writing. But wait! What happened to our argument that the permit requirement never applied to us in the first place? How did we get to First Amendment claim for free speech when we should have never been cited in the first place?

We're looking to win this case on principle, not on politics. With all due respect to Mayor Anthony Williams and the members of his administration, we're not interested in finding a political solution. It's the principle that matters here. The law was unfairly applied to one group's garden ornament because apparently, someone with political clout didn't like what our ornament said and where it was located. That is itself unconstitutional. You either apply the law equally to all or to none.

I am hopeful that the Government of the District of Columbia resolves that issue first by agreeing they should have never threatened us in the first place. Having said that, they must ALSO respect our freedom of speech under the Constitution.

My colleagues and I are very happy to serve in ministry in the District. We live much of our lives in the District, maintain part-time residences in the District, do much of our spending in the District and pay taxes here. We think life improves in our capital city with every passing year. And, we know, that it would be further improved if citizens in the District are relieved of the fear that should they place an unpopular but tasteful piece of art in their front garden--no matter where they're located--there won't come that dreaded, $300-a-day, take-your-property knock on the door!

Let's see what comes next. And thank you to each one that signed our "Preserve the Ten Commandments" Petition. Your actions may have helped us win this important first round. Hallelujah!

More as it comes available . . .

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