Oklahoma lawmaker challenges fed's threat against church highway signs

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin told news reporters Tuesday, the federal government's call for churches to remove large highway signs is an attack on religious freedom. | Screen capture Newson6.com

TULSA, Okla. (Christian Examiner) -- An Oklahoma lawmaker questioned the constitutionality of a decision by the Federal Highway Administration to force churches across the state to take down their highway signs or face violation notices.

"In my opinion it's a direct attack on religious freedom," Representative Markwayne Mullin told Oklahoma's News on 6 Tuesday May 5.

Since 2009, the state's legislators have attempted to increase highway signs for churches and non-profit organizations from eight square-feet to 32-square-feet by asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to approve the sign enlargement.

In 2013 the Oklahoma Legislature moved forward with a state bill approving the size variance despite no word from the federal government. However, in March 2014 USDOT rendered the larger signs illegal claiming they failed to comply with the Highway Beautification Act and is threatening to withhold federal highway funds if the bigger signs remain. As a result the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has sent nearly 20 lettersto stakeholders in at least two counties advising that the signs must be removed.

Reportedly as the letters are received state legislators are hearing from constituents.

"Some of these signs have been there for years," Mullin said. "We started getting calls from all over. My own church that I go to - the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Westville - my pastor called and said,'Markwayne what is this?'"

A press release issued by Mullin states the congressman now is asking for new legislation to help non-profits keep their signs.

"I believe most churches and civic groups have more meaningful ways to spend the money it will cost to remove their signs and get ones that comply with this example of federal overreach," Mullin wrote in a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (PA-09).

According to that release, Shuster's committee is working on a long-term highway funding bill within which Mullin seeks to add language allowing the signs to remain.

"I would hope that the FHWA realizes that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT), and that of any other state, has more pressing infrastructure issues to deal with than limiting church and civic club signs to 8 square feet," Mullin wrote.

Additionally, Mullin raised concern in his letter that forcing removal of the signs forces ODOT "to squander precious resources on the misguided endeavor" and raises the issue of "constitutionally-protected speech."

"This is one of those things that makes you wonder if the federal government is focusing its resources – our tax dollars – on important priorities," Mullin said. "Or, are they trying to force churches to comply with what some bureaucrat thinks is the proper size for a church sign?"