Federal court backs Fort Myers Beach man in religious sign dispute

Published: June 29, 2022 5:48 AM EDT
Street-side preacher Adam Lacroix on Fort Myers Beach in June 2021. Credit: WINK News.

A federal appeals court Tuesday sided with a man who challenged a Fort Myers Beach ordinance that prevented him from carrying a sign with a Christian message on the town’s streets.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a district judge should have granted a request by Adam LaCroix for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, which barred portable signs.

The panel did not agree with an argument by LaCroix that the ordinance was a “content-based” constitutional violation. But the judges said the town’s prohibition on portable signs likely violated the First Amendment.

“The rich tradition of political lawn signs perhaps is surpassed only by America’s history of marches and rallies dotted with handheld signs and placards of every imaginable description and covering every conceivable political message,” Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in a 26-page opinion joined by Judges Jill Pryor and Britt Grant. “Images of demonstrators holding portable signs immediately spring to mind: the March on Washington, the Women’s March, the 2000 presidential election protests in Dade County and Tallahassee, the Black Lives Matter protests in nearly every city in the country, the Tea Party protests, the Women’s Suffrage March and many more. All of them involved people carrying portable signs. And all were easy to create and customize. If the town’s prohibition on carrying all portable signs were to stand, all kinds of expressive speech protected by the First Amendment would be barred.”

The opinion said Fort Myers Beach passed a sign ordinance to try to prevent visual blight and barred portable signs. It said LaCroix in October 2020 was “peaceably attempting to share his religious message on a public sidewalk” when he received a warning from a code-compliance officer about violating the sign ordinance. In December 2020, he received a citation.

“Although the record (in the case) does not tell us precisely the dimensions of the sign LaCroix held nor its exact message, we know that LaCroix said he shared his ‘religious, political and social message’ which ‘is one of hope and salvation that Christianity offers,'” Marcus wrote.

A town official subsequently dismissed the citation, but LaCroix filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and a state law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

U.S. District Judge Sheri Polster Chappell last year rejected the request for a preliminary injunction, spurring LaCroix and his attorneys from the American Liberties Institute to take the case to the Atlanta-based appeals court.

The opinion Tuesday sent the case back to the district court.

“The most natural reading of the ordinance leads us to the conclusion that all portable signs are banned — regardless of whether they are political, religious, advertising a garage sale or an open house,” Marcus wrote. “The ordinance’s ban on portable signs is content-neutral. But portable, handheld signs still are a rich part of the American political tradition and are one of the most common (if not the most common) methods of free expression. The ban on these signs leaves the residents of Fort Myers Beach without an effective alternative channel of communication; it very likely violates the First Amendment.”