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Coronado's historic church directory sign to be removed amid 1st Amendment concerns

Coronado's historic church directory sign to be removed amid 1st Amendment concerns
Coronado's church directory, on the corner of Orange Avenue and Sixth Street. (Gustavo Solis / San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Ryan Meoni complained about a city-owned church directory in Coronado, he never expected the city to remove the sign.

"My whole problem was just one word: church," said Meoni, 20. "I never pushed for the sign to be taken down."

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But that's exactly what the city of Coronado plans to do with the sign that's been on Orange Avenue and 6th Street since the 1960s.

Mayor Richard Bailey cited possible 1st Amendment lawsuits in a Facebook post announcing the decision to remove the sign.

"I understand this is a sensitive topic; however, a new directory/signage will be reinstalled after this project is complete and it will be inclusive of all organizations, including our faith-based ones," Bailey wrote.

Concerns over 1st Amendment lawsuits came after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent Coronado a letter about the church directory shortly after Meoni reached out to the organization.

The letter states that Coronado's church directory "raises serious constitutional concerns under the Establishment Clause." Specifically, because the sign lists only Christian churches, it could give the appearance that Coronado promotes Christianity over other faiths, said Liz Cavell, the lawyer who wrote the letter.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation's largest nontheist advocacy organization. It promotes the separation of church and state and has sued municipal governments over religious displays on public property.

News of the church directory got the attention of attorney Charles LiMandri, who represented the city of San Diego in the a lawsuit over the Mt. Soledad cross.

"I'm not sure at this point why they need to do anything," LiMandri said.

The lawyer offered to represent Coronado free of charge in any potential litigation but never heard back from the city.

Not only does LiMandri believe the sign should stay, he thinks removing it could open the city to a different kind of lawsuit.

"Removing it could be a violation by showing hostility toward a religion," he said.

The establishment clause of the 1st Amendment prohibits governments from doing things that a "reasonable observer" would perceive as endorsing religion, said Steven Smith, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law who specializes in law and religion.

"This is a very subjective and fact-specific doctrine, and it's hard to predict the outcome of particular cases," Smith said. "But a sign listing churches along with other organizations is surely less vulnerable than one that lists only churches, so it seems that the city has acted in a prudent way."

Maimon Schwarzschild, another USD law professor who specializes in law and religion, believes the directory is legitimate as long as it is open to all religions and denominations.

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"There is a tendency in the country, of late, for advocacy groups to threaten litigation, and/or to threaten boycotts — often, as I think in this case, on slender grounds — and for people and businesses and towns and cities to be intimidated and to stop doing perfectly legitimate and useful things, out of fear for what might happen if, for instance, they are sued," Schwarzschild said. "This can be very divisive, it seems to me, in a society which is already all too polarized and divided."

Meoni grew up in Coronado, played for the high school baseball team and attends college outside of San Diego. Even though he spent most of his life in Coronado, he first noticed the sign in December while walking by the park with his sister.

Meoni didn't like the word "church" on the sign because, in his opinion, it excludes religious institutions that meet in temples or mosques. He didn't expect the issue to get so much attention.

"If they would've just changed one word on the sign, I would've been fine with that," he said.

Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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