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South Carolina Man Fights to Keep Religious Signs on His Property

Religious Signs

One of seven signs Oscar Moultrie was forced to remove from his yard after Berkeley County told him he needed a permit and to pay $25 per sign if he wanted to keep them up. (Rutherford Institute)

A South Carolina man says his constitutional rights have been violated after he was told by his local government to remove the Bible-themed signs he had posted on his property.

Oscar Moultrie says a Berkeley County, S.C., ordinance that requires residents to obtain government permission before putting up signs on their private property -- other than "for sale," "for rent," political signs, and a few other exceptions -- violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Moultrie says he received no complaints about his signs before the county ordered him in March to remove them or pay $25 to get a permit to post them.

In his lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C., he is asking the court to issue an immediate injunction that bars enforcement of the ordinance and declares it unconstitutional.

"The thing with the ordinance," says John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which is representing Moultrie, "is it allows for political signs, which means that in this particular case it would be what you call viewpoint discrimination, which the Supreme Court and a number of federal courts have ruled on.

"Once you allow a form of speech you have to be content-neutral as to what speeches you permit," Whitehead told FoxNews.com. "Here they haven't been content-neutral, and I think it's a good constitutional case."

Whitehead, who says he doesn't know of any similar ordinance being enforced elsewhere, said he believes Moultrie was targeted because of the religious nature of his signs.

According to the complaint the 24-by-18-inch cardboard signs, displayed between September 2009 and February 2010, included six signs with the following messages:

    -- "READ 2 Chronicles 7:13,14 Deuteronomy 11:13-17"
    -- "What is the TRUE Gospel?"
    -- "READ Matthew 24: 15,16 I Peter 4:17"
    -- "EZEKIEL Chapters 33-39 JEREMIAH Chapters 21-271 THESSALONIANS Chapter 4 & 5"
    -- "ECCLESIASTES 8:5 Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment"
    -- "DANIEL Chapter 12 REVELATION Chapter 5 ZEPHANIAH Chapter 1"

A seventh sign contained six separate Scripture references:

   -- "I Peter 4:7 But the END of All Things is at Hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.    
   -- " Genesis 7:4 States that God would destroy the world in 7 days"
   -- "II Peter 3:8 States that 1 day is as 1000 years"
   -- "The flood of Noah's day took place in 4990 BC 7000 years after 4990 BC is AD 2011"
   -- "God did destroy the world after 7 days on the 17th day of the second month
   -- "He will destroy it forever beginning on the 17th day of the second month which is May 21, 2001."

Whitehead says it's vital that the court step in -- and not just for Moultrie's benefit. He says that because the ordinance defines a sign as any structure or device that "transmits information or an idea," the county could prevent people from displaying just about anything on their private property -- including religious holiday decorations.

"That has broad implications," he said. "Under the First Amendment, citizens are not required to obtain government permission before exercising their right of free expression on their own property."

Noel Francisco, a constitutional attorney with no involvement in the case, says Moultrie is right and the county's ordinance will be "dead on arrival."

"You're putting a religious message on your own private property, you have to first get government approval and pay a $25 fee," he told FoxNews.com. "That in and of itself would be a problem -- even if you had a completely neutral law that said for any sign you had to follow this process.

"This law's even worse, though, because it isn't a blanket law that applies to all signs," Francisco said, adding that even displays other than signs potentially could be targeted. "I guess, if you've got your car parked in your driveway and you have a statue of the Virgin Mary on your dashboard, they could go after that too."

Berkeley County's attorney Nicole Ewing told FoxNews.com that she was aware that a lawsuit had been filed in federal court, but that as of Wednesday the county had not been served. She would not comment further on the case.

"Our policy is not to comment on pending litigation," she said.

Berkeley County Code of Ordinances says the sign ordinance is intended to enhance the county's visual communication and appearance, improve traffic safety and fight blight.

Fox News Legal Analyst Lis Wiehl agreed that the ordinance as written is unconstitutional, but she said a simple amendment could preserve its intentions while staying within the law.

"What the county can do to amend is require permits for all signs but don't charge for them," Wiehl told FoxNews.com.

The Rutherford Institute says it is awaiting  the county's response.

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