In September, 2007, Pastor Jim Nimmons painted the word “Eternity” on the church’s roof, intending to prompt locals to ponder where they would spend eternity. A few months later, the City slapped the church with a fine and nuisance order, charging criminal violation of sign ordinances. The City code defined a sign as a message designed to advertise a business, goods or services. The church protested that the message of “Eternity” was not selling anything but reluctantly paid the fine. The church was forced to abandon an appeal with the city after being threatened with liability for the City’s attorney’s fees in the likely event the appeal was denied. Last June, staff attorneys for the non-profit Pacific Justice Institute filed a federal suit on the church’s behalf.
After defending its sign ordinance in court for more than a year, Cathedral City admitted this week that the ordinance applied to the church was “poorly written” and “likely a mistake.” As a result, the City completely replaced its sign code. The city appears poised to continue pursuing the church under its new sign code, which seeks to expand the city’s authority to require permits for a wide variety of messages and displays. As one example, the new ordinance requires a sign permit for any homeowners who might wish to display more than one flag at their home.
Karen Milam, who heads PJI’s Southern California office, commented, “After nearly eighteen months of battling over this issue, it is gratifying that Cathedral City has now admitted their sign ordinance was a weak basis on which to fine and threaten First Southern Baptist Church.” Milam, who has been litigating the case for the church, added, “We will continue to pursue this case until the church’s free speech and equal protection rights are fully vindicated.”