Church-state separation on shaky ground in Groton

Town of Groton zoning regulations require permits for all permanent signs, and prohibit the placement of any signs on public property, yet the regulation is not enforced for all.

Town officials, in a longstanding practice, turn a blind-eye to one particular class of sign - advertising for church locations - while assiduously enforcing these same ordinances against others.

The town performs periodic "sweeps" of the roadsides, removing signs. The town also routinely rejects requests made by local businesses for placement of signs, citing that the requested location is on public property - and no signs are allowed there.

However, the town ignores the numerous permanent signs, advertising churches, found on public property around town. Many of these non-conforming signs are sizable, commercially produced, metal structures placed at high visibility road junctions where they create the very problem that the regulations specifically seek to prevent, i.e. a "public safety hazard due to their unsafe location or their potential distraction to motorists".

When I inquired of the town about the permits for these signs I was told that no permits had been issued "because we don't regulate those signs." This stance is completely unsupportable given the above facts about how the town enforces the same regulations against all other signs in similar locations.

The town's stance is completely unsupported by the law. The town's own sign ordinances are quite clear and unambiguous in setting out the permit requirements (Section 7.3-1) and the prohibition against placement on public property (Section 7.3-3 B).

The town has even tried to claim that signs on state (Department of Transportation) land are exempt from local regulations, even though I have shown them specific statutes and regulations that explicitly contradict that - Connecticut Agencies Regulations Sec. 13b-17-10 (2) - "All applicable local ordinances, federal and State statutes and regulations shall be complied with, and all licenses and permits shall be obtained by the permittee."

The town sign ordinances themselves are "content-neutral" (they apply irrespective of who/what the sign is for). Indeed the Supreme Court has ruled that such regulations must be content-neutral (to accord with constitutional provisions for free speech, equal protection and even separation of church and state).

Unfortunately, the town's enforcement of these ordinances is not so equitable.

Paul S. Wragg, a Groton resident, was arrested in January 2012 on charges of larceny, mischief and intimidation by bigotry or bias for removing church signs he considered illegal. He considered it an act of civil disobedience. Charges were later dropped.

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