WAXAHACHIE, Texas — The city of Waxahachie's demand that an I-35 billboard be removed sparked a social media outcry this week with dozens claiming the city was attacking freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
On the contrary, city officials say, they'd just like to see the billboard company apply for the proper permits to install the steel structure in the first place.
The billboard in question sits at mile marker 395 on I-35 south of the city of Waxahachie. The south-facing side of the billboard is an advertisement for Executive Inn & Suites. The north-facing side of the billboard delivers this message to southbound traffic: "Did You Think to Pray?"
"You have good people trying to enforce an absurd statute or ordinance," said Dan Gus, an attorney representing Acme Partnership/Media Choice the owner of the billboard.
In a Facebook post on the page for Gus & Gilbert, P.C., the law firm stated that "a Texas city has ordered the removal of this billboard pursuant to an ordinance that prohibits such signs," stating that the ordinance "allows the City to order the removal of signs based on their message or content."
The Facebook post spawned dozens of comments with people believing Waxahachie was demanding the billboard be removed because of its religious message.
The Waxahachie city manager says that couldn't be further from the truth.
"The City of Waxahachie has no ability to regulate what goes on the signs," said City Manager Michael Scott. "Our ability is really to regulate the structure itself.”
Scott says it doesn't matter what is on the sign, whether the religious message on one side or the hotel advertisement on the other.
He explained that the billboard company did get the necessary permit from TxDOT to install the billboard. It is in the TxDOT right of way and is properly registered with the state.
But the second level of permitting requires a billboard company to apply for and receive the proper permit from the city of Waxahachie, something the billboard installer never did.
Scott said the billboard is located in the city's "extraterritorial jurisdiction" (ETJ), which makes any billboard installation subject to Waxahachie's sign ordinances.
"It's really about the erection of the sign, it being not permitted and going in illegally," he said. "That's where our concerns are."
City correspondence sent to the billboard company Media Choice dated June 26 of last year shows that the city issued a "notice to immediately remove" the sign based on non-compliance with Waxahachie's permitting process. Google Earth Street view images from that time show that the same billboard did not yet carry the "prayer" message. At the time of the first letter sent to the billboard company, the north-facing side of the billboard was advertising a popular kolache destination in West, Texas.
“It's certainly not about the content,” Scott said.
"Is the city or city officials specifically targeting prayer, absolutely not," admitted Gus, the attorney representing the billboard company. “They're all good people and to my knowledge all good people of genuine faith. I don't think there's any evil motive here that is anti-religion."
But, in addition to considering a challenge to the city's determination that the billboard does rest within its ETJ and its ordinance, Gus said he still has problems with some of the language in the ordinance itself.
"It could be any person's ox that's being gored by this statute," he said. "In this one particular instance, and it's gotten a lot of attention, it just happened at this moment to be a religious message. It could be a different message the city says you can't do, and that's where we have the constitutional problem."
A problem, whether about prayer, hotels, kolaches, or just permitting and location, that might have to be resolved in court.