After being threatened with eviction, a woman who refused to remove a religious sign from the window of her government-subsidized house in Taylor, Mich., has settled a lawsuit against her with the company that manages the complex, allowing her to stay in her home and to continue displaying the placard.
The sign in question, an eight-inch stop-sign-shaped placard, reads: “24 Hr. Prayer Station.” A resident of the complex for over 10 years, Johnie Heard was told to take down the sign or be evicted. She refused to remove it. Heard lives in a Section 8, low-income complex owned by the city and believes that just because she lives in government housing doesn’t mean she’s given up her right of free expression. Section 8 is a federally funded housing subsidy program.
Officials from McKinley Properties, the management company, claimed Heard was breaking a rule against posting signs. According to regulations, residents aren’t allowed to have any signs or lettering on the buildings. Other residents, however, have secular signs posted on doors, windows and in yards and have not been bothered by housing personnel, says Heard. Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, told WorldNetDaily the sign policy has never been enforced on any other signs in Heard’s neighborhood; only Heard’s religious sign has been targeted.
McKinley Properties filed a suit against Heard, and she settled with the company yesterday, just hours before a pre-trial hearing was to take place. According to Tim Denney, Heard’s attorney, the settlement calls for the dismissal of the eviction and allows Heard to continue displaying her prayer sign. Further eviction action still could be taken at a later time, but Denney doubted that would happen.
Staver says if Heard had lost the suit and had been evicted, she would have been forced to seek housing at the local Salvation Army, because she had no other place to go.
David Fantera, the attorney who represented McKinley Properties, said the reason the suit was brought against Heard was that “McKinley Properties wishes to have a uniform appearance.” He told WND it is “not true” that her sign was discriminated against and that he was not aware of other signs in her area.
According to Staver, however, a resident who lives near Heard has a similar sign to hers. It reads: “Santa Stops Here.” That resident and other residents with similar secular signs and decorations have not been served notices of eviction.
“What’s incredible to me,” said Staver, “is that they would literally try to evict somebody and kick them out on the street … solely for displaying a religious sign.”
Heard says the ordeal first started in January, four days after she placed a prayer sign in her yard. Housing personnel phoned her and told her to remove the sign from her yard, because it was “offensive” to some people. “Everyone’s not religious,” the officials reportedly told her. Heard refused to comply, explaining that she had the right to put the sign in her own yard. The sign was forcibly removed, Heard says, because the “big-time people” of McKinley – the company’s owners – were planning to come by. The manager didn’t want them to see the yard sign, Heard contends.
“When I put the sign in my yard, I had no idea I was going to receive such flak about it,” Heard told WND.
Putting a smaller version of the yard sign in her window after her other sign was removed, she began getting phone calls from the staff telling her she was in violation of her lease. She was reported to the Section 8 staff and began getting phone calls from them, as well. A Section 8 government employee told Heard the sign was inviting people to come into her home anytime day or night.
Heard told the worker she was not implying that at all: “I’m simply making a statement that my home is a place of prayer,” she said.
Surprised by the “fanatical” way the housing personnel came at her because of a small, religious sign, Heard began to look for help. She tried a civil-rights organization, Legal Aid and City Hall, but she says no one could help her. That’s when she found Staver. She came in contact with Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit, legal-defense organization.
Staver says Liberty Counsel plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the rule on signs. “The government can’t engage in viewpoint-based discrimination,” Staver said.
In an earlier statement, Staver explained, “As a government housing facility, the city of Taylor and the housing authorities must respect the First Amendment rights of these residents. Certainly, the residents have the right to display religious messages in the window of their own homes.”
Residents of McKinley used to use their community clubhouse for Sunday church services, Staver says, but they were told by housing personnel that they couldn’t hold services in the clubhouse anymore. Afterwards, 50 residents signed a petition requesting continued use of the facility. The authorities told the residents they could only use the clubhouse in the evenings and only after a fee was paid. The residents were unable to pay the “exorbitant fee,” said Staver, because they were low-income. Other residents, however, are allowed to use the clubhouse for other purposes without having to pay the fee, he claims.
“They seem to have a pattern discriminating against religious practices and religious beliefs or representations,” he said.