Religious freedom signs spur spat in Ridgefield

Homeowners group tells woman to take them down; she hires lawyer

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Ridgefield resident Lisa Schmidt is passionate about her Catholic faith -- so passionate in fact that she staked signs in her yard encouraging others to "stand up for religious freedom."

And stand up is exactly what Schmidt did when she received a notice from her homeowners association asking her to remove the religious freedom signs, which had been set up alongside several yard signs expressing support for political candidates.

It all started with a neighbor's complaint about all the signs in Schmidt's yard.

The Mt. Vista Home Owners Association's handbook allows homeowners in the 430-home subdivision to place candidate signs in their yards within the 45 days leading up to an election, but the religious freedom signs did not fit the description of what's allowed, according to the association's notice that was sent to Schmidt.

Schmidt, a marketing professional, said she typically advises people that "emotion has no place in rational thinking," but said she's had trouble following her own advice in this particular situation.

"(The homeowners association is) overzealous to say the least," she said. "It's gone too far."

Getting put on notice by her homeowners

association prompted Schmidt to get a lawyer from the Liberty Council in Arlington, Va. The council is "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family," according to its website. In a strongly worded letter sent to the Mt. Vista association, the Liberty Council asserts that Schmidt's signs are protected speech under a 2005 state law.

The legal letter was a surprise to the homeowners association, which is working to address Schmidt's concerns, Vicki Sparks, Mt. Vista association manager, said.

According to state law: "The governing documents (of a homeowners association) may not prohibit the outdoor display of political yard signs by an owner or resident on the owner's or the resident's property before any primary or general election." The law gives homeowners associations some wiggle room to create "reasonable rules and regulations regarding the placement and manner of display of political yard signs."

The Mt. Vista association rule book was updated following the passage of the 2005 law after the association consulted with an attorney, Sparks said. The homeowners' association wrote its rules to allow residents to post one sign per political candidate or political issue. If a resident wants to put up a sign about a political issue, that issue must be on the ballot in the upcoming election, according to Mount Vista rules.

The signs in Schmidt's yard that mention religious freedom also display the Web address for the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Coalition, which is made up of a long list of anti-abortion groups from across the nation. The group is a political organization, and therefore the signs are political speech, the Liberty Council argues in its letter.

The 2005 state law "gives (homeowners associations) no authority whatsoever to regulate the content of political yard signs, or the time frame in which they may be displayed in an election year," Schmidt's attorney, Richard Mast, wrote in the letter. "Schmidt is a politically active Christian, and will be voting in the upcoming August 7, 2012 primary. … She votes her religious conviction," the letter continues.

The letter also points out that if an association loses a legal dispute, "the court can award the prevailing party reimbursement for reasonable attorneys' fees." Mast said by phone on Wednesday that he would not disclose whether the group planned to sue the homeowners association because he did not want to discuss legal strategy.

The Mt. Vista association doesn't have a philosophical problem with Schmidt's religious signs, Sparks said, and the board was doing what it had to do to respond to a complaint about the signs in Schmidt's yard.

The board received the Liberty Council's letter earlier this week and will review it with the help of their attorney, Sparks said. If the attorney advises that the homeowners association rules should change, then the board will consider taking those steps, she said.

The board is a volunteer group of homeowners who live in the subdivision, and they are "not out to stop anybody's free speech," Sparks said. "The board is just figuring out the right thing to do now."

The silver lining, Schmidt said, is that her experience has allowed her to talk with her children about important political topics, including property rights and the First Amendment.

"We've had some strong conversations in our home about what it means to live in the United States," she said.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics