Two sides continue to be at odds in debate over St. Agnes abortion awareness display in Roeland Park

The Roeland Park city council continues to struggle with how to handle a display of crosses set out during abortion awareness month, like the one above in Washington state, under city code. Photo via Flickr.
The Roeland Park city council continues to struggle with how to handle a display of crosses set out during abortion awareness month, like the one above in Washington state, under city code. Photo via Flickr.

By Jerry LaMartina

Roeland Park is still trying to decide whether amending city code is the best way to accommodate St. Agnes Catholic Church’s tradition of displaying roughly 40 small white crosses on its lawn each October in recognition of abortion awareness month.

The City Council started debating the issue in early December, discussed it again on Jan. 17 and took it up a third time at its Monday night workshop, at which it ultimately decided to carry it over again, to its March 6 workshop.

Assistant City Administrator Jennifer Jones-Lacy summarized proposed changes to the city’s Type 1 special events ordinance, which include limiting special events to 60 days per property, with at least 15 days between events, and limiting event displays to 500 square feet or 5 percent of the property’s total area, whichever is less.

Jeanne Gorman, the attorney for St. Agnes, said that she could have approached the question as a First Amendment issue—“which is what we really think protects those crosses against any kind of regulation”—but that the church wanted to cooperate with the city in finding a solution.

“Planting those crosses is a public display of very deep-seated church teachings about respecting life, and that’s why it’s so important to the church to be able to witness that to the outside world,” Gorman said.

Mayor Joel Marquardt called St. Agnes “essentially the most defining entity in Roeland Park.”

“It is a huge benefit to the city,” he said. “It draws citizens. It helps housing values.”

Marquardt said he had no problem with allowing the display as a special event each year, and he suggested the council work on a rule that would allow each segment of the church’s campus to display signs for its events while complying with the ordinance.

Gorman asked whether the limit of 60 days would apply to each of the buildings on the St. Agnes campus or to all of them collectively, and she said it would cause the church a hardship if it were to apply collectively to its campus, which includes the church, its elementary school, a daycare and several other buildings. City Administrator Keith Moody said a special event is tied to a property. Assistant City Attorney Jessie Fox said the ordinance defines it by parcel.

Robert Soptic, who lives across the street from the church’s elementary school, said that he “called 32 people yesterday evening and today, and they asked me to give you their regards, and I mean that sincerely.”

“As parishioners of St. Agnes, we hope that what we had out there attesting to our faith is not insulting to you, as it’s not meant to be, but it is a profound statement of our beliefs,” Soptic said.

Ward 4 Councilman Michael Poppa said he thought the issue had been misunderstood as the council opposing what the crosses stood for, “but that’s not the case.”

“We’re looking at it purely as a procedural issue, a signage issue,” he said.

The discussion included questions and some expressed confusion about whether the crosses were signs, symbols, displays or special events relative to the ordinance. Jones-Lacy said the city considers the display of crosses to be an event, and that using a special event permit and not changing the ordinance could solve the problem. Gorman expressed concern about whether future council’s would see it that way.

“I think this is a bit ambiguous as to whether special events or sign ordinance would control,” Gorman said. “The definition of Type 1 (special events) was changed to encompass indoor activities. We don’t view the crosses in the yard as a sign or an event.”

The problem surrounding the crosses, Ward 2 Councilman Michael Rhoades said, involves what they represent.

“The reality of it is—this is my perception—if we had 40 books out there for literacy awareness, no problem,” Rhoades said. “It’s because it’s the pro-life issue. Second, limiting to 500 square feet signs for their whole campus—that’s not fair. It’s not putting them on a level playing field.”

Rhoades read aloud from the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“It says (it) ‘protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome and discriminatory land-use regulations’—and that’s exactly what this is; it’s a land-use regulation—‘unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest.’ ”

Ward 4 Councilwoman Teresa Kelly said she was “a firm believer in free speech.”

“We are not trying not trying to regulate the message or the content,” she said. “We’re trying to accommodate so you don’t have to come every year. I think we should leave the ordinance alone. I can’t imagine (the church’s special permit request) being disapproved, because you’d have a free-speech issue.”