- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

FRANKLINTON, La. Civil libertarians won a battle over public religious displays in this small Louisiana town. But residents feel they are victors, too.

More than 1,000 signs proclaiming that "God Is Lord Over All" now dot lawns and storefronts around the town of 4,000.

A local sign maker has sold about 2,800 more to people from surrounding towns, and a traveling salesman has started hawking them in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

The signs are a response to a lawsuit from the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued Franklinton and forced town officials to remove four signs from public property that said, "Jesus Is Lord Over Franklinton."

Residents responded by planting similar signs in their front yards. In many neighborhoods, it's now tough to find a yard that doesn't have a light blue sign with the Christian proclamation in white lettering.

"There was sort of an outcry from the Christian community," said Gene Richards, pastor of Hill Crest Baptist Church. "It seems the ACLU is trying to de-Christianize the community."

ACLU officials say that's not true, they are merely defending the Constitution.

The civil liberties group filed its federal lawsuit Jan. 29, demanding the removal of the signs leading into town. ACLU officials named Washington Parish and town officials in their complaint, saying public money was used to erect the signs which violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Parish President M.E. Taylor acknowledged that parish road crews put up the signs, but he said residents paid for them.

New Orleans resident Linton Carney, who joined the ACLU as a plaintiff, said he was offended when he first saw the signs in July while driving through Franklinton, which is 55 miles north of New Orleans near the Mississippi state line.

"I was so upset to see such a sign that makes non-Christians unwelcome in Franklinton," Mr. Carney said at the time the suit was filed. "Can you imagine the hostility that Jews, Muslims, members of other minority faiths and nonbelievers must feel when living in or passing through that community?"

Word about the lawsuit spread. The idea to put signs on private property came independently to pastors and a group of residents organizing their annual parish fair, said Madonna Fowler, 54, a retired Franklinton teacher.

Homeowners put them in their yards. Some put them inside car windows. Business owners planted them in front of Radio Shack, Crown Auto Sales and Winston Refrigeration.

Word spread to neighboring towns.

"Now they're in every town in Washington Parish," said Scott Blair, owner of All Star Graphics, which makes the $3 and $5 signs.

They have also shown up across the Mississippi River, in Picayune, Miss.

Lamar Bryant, a traveling salesman from nearby Bogalusa, has bought 1,000 signs and is selling them across the Southeast.

Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, said he's satisfied that his suit removed religious content from public property.

"If [the signs] are on private property and people want to make a statement, then that's freedom of expression. Let the words fly," he said.

Mr. Cook said Franklinton residents are wrong, however, to think of the ACLU as anti-Christian.

"I think they missed the point," he said. "To suggest that the ACLU is anti-religious … is totally untrue."

But the lawsuit stung many residents of this mainly Protestant town.

"Most people were a little angry at the ACLU," Miss Fowler said. "This is a small, basically Christian town and we just strongly believe that Jesus is Lord over all."

Mr. Richards said the ACLU lawsuit was the latest in a string of suits over public Christian displays. Nearby towns have been hit with legal battles over nativity scenes on public property.

"These are types of displays of the Christian faith that had been accepted, even expected, and now we're being told they're illegal," Mr. Richards said. "These signs originally were a declaration of the faith of a large majority of people in Franklinton. They were never intended to be offensive or to discriminate against anyone."

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