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City Needn't Bear a Cross

January 12, 2003

San Clemente's sign ordinance might not specifically cover the cross atop a surf-shop, but the city's intention upon passing the ordinance was clear and defensible. City leaders now just need to rewrite the words, excising the wiggle room for uncooperative businesses.

One in particular.

Shop owner Richard Landingham erected the 10-foot cross in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an understandable expression of his religious and patriotic feelings. He hung American flags from the arms of the cross and set it off with red holiday lights.

But rather than a spontaneous symbol of belief, the cross seems to have become a permanent fixture in a city that has a clear prohibition against rooftop signs.

Landingham refused to take down the cross, prompting the city to take him to court. But before anyone pegs the shop owner as a beacon of free speech and religion, it's important to know that Landingham had neglected to get a permit for the cross -- as well as for the more mundane business sign on the side of the building.

The judge ruled that Landingham had the right to keep the cross. Not because it is covered by the 1st Amendment, but because the city's sign ordinance is too narrow to cover this kind of display. The ordinance covers only business signs, and since Landingham doesn't sell crosses or American flags or holiday lights, the rooftop symbol isn't advertising his business. But the shop owner was found guilty of failing to get required permits and was fined $715.

Landingham, of course, has the right to express his feelings -- within bounds. But certainly he knew that a 10-foot, red-lighted cross would make for an in-your-face visual wallop that most business districts would never tolerate.

If other businesses in the area followed suit, they would create an eye-goggling display that the city and its residents never intended.

The city has the right to create the public ambience it prefers for its business districts. And if it doesn't want stuff up on the roof, it has the right to say "No stuff is allowed on the roof." That's clearly what it meant with the sign ordinance. Maybe that's the way the city should have worded it, so that it would be clear, even to Landingham.

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