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Kansas City Church Wins Court Victory In Sign Of The Times

Antioch.jpg
Antioch Community Church
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A years-long dispute over whether a Northland church that installed a digital sign violated Kansas City’s sign ordinance has ended in the church’s favor.

Antioch Community Church, which sits on a four-lane road between I-35 and Vivion Road, erected the sign in 2010 with an $11,426 bequest from a parishioner’s estate.

Unbeknown to the church, however, a Kansas City ordinance prohibited digital signs on church property in residential areas.

In response to an anonymous complaint about a year after it put up the sign, Kansas City cited the church. The church then sought a variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which denied its request.

A Clay County Circuit judge subsequently ordered the board to grant the variance, the board appealed and, in a nine-page decision handed down Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the church.  

The court rejected the board’s contention that the city’s ordinance gave it no authority to grant the church a variance. And it found that the variance would not result in a substantial change to the neighborhood’s character.

In its brief, the church had argued that several stores along Antioch Road had digital displays and the city was discriminating between commercial and non-commercial speech.

“It is patently unconstitutional to allow the Phillips 66 on Antioch Road to convey on its digital sign the commercial message of $3.16 per gallon of gas, while forbidding the Antioch Community Church from conveying on its digital sign the religious, noncommercial message of John 3:16 from the Bible,” the church’s brief stated.

The court did not address the constitutional argument in its opinion. 

The church’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, said on Tuesday that the court’s decision “means that you really can beat City Hall.”

“Twice now, courts have ruled that the sign should be allowed,” Rhodes said in an email. “On each occasion, the court said the city ignored the evidence and simply stamped the church’s application “Denied” without giving it a fair chance.”

City officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Last year, the Kansas City Council approved rules allowing some digital signs on school and church properties with more than 15 acres, or 10 acres on a busy street. The compromise was prompted by a dispute over digital signs installed by the North Kansas City School District.

Antioch Community Church traces its roots to 1853. The original sanctuary was erected in 1859, according to the church’s website, and was in use until 1957. It is now a registered historical site.

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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