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In Depth: Religious Billboards Debated In Frankfort

By Tony McVeigh, Kentucky Public RadioIn the waning days of the 2010 Kentucky General Assembly, environmentalists find themselves in the sensitive position of challenging legislation aimed at protecting religious billboards. Listen NowAlong I-65 in LaRue and Hart counties are two billboards bearing religious messages like “Hell is Real,” and the Ten Commandments. The signs were paid for by Jimmy Harston of Scottsville, who says he has erected similar signs in several states. The billboards are on private property and both are illegal, says Chuck Wolfe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.“(It) had nothing to do with the message,” said Wolfe. “It was just the cabinet’s position that they are illegal because of their placement and the potential for distraction. That’s a highway safety issue.”In February, LaRue Circuit Judge Geoffrey Morris came to the same conclusion. Ordering removal of the five-year-old signs, Judge Morris says it’s not the message - it’s the non-compliance with state and federal billboard laws. But the decision, which will be appealed, doesn’t sit well with Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow (pictured) Legislation sponsored by Bell exempts signs with religious messages from state billboard permitting standards. “Now, someone’s coming along telling these people that you can’t spend your private money and put something on your private land that is within the realm of the restrictions that have been put forth by federal regulation,” said Bell. “So, I felt like that needed to be addressed and that’s why I filed the bill.”Over the objections of environmentalists, like Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council, the bill sailed through the House Tourism, Development and Energy Committee 15-1 and awaits a floor vote.“I understand the intent and I don’t necessarily disagree with the intent,” said Fitzgerald. “But the effect of the bill would be to de-regulate the siting and the spacing of non-commercial boards. And that would, I think, constitute a loss of effective control, which would jeopardize 10% of our federal Aid to Highways monies.”Or around $40 million a year, says Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald also fears the billboard industry will use Bell’s bill to revive a vegetation trimming bill currently stalled in the Senate.“I’m sure that they’re hoping that this will get to the Senate, where they can tack that on and use the popularity of this bill as a way to further their cause,” said Fitzgerald.But House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins doesn't see that happening.“I can tell you that Rep. Bell has expressed his concern about that as well, and if that happens, I think he does have a problem with amendments being put on his legislation," said Adkins.Scenic Kentucky, which fights to protect the commonwealth’s beauty, fears the legislation will lead to a proliferation of unregulated billboards. But Rep. Bell says that’s certainly not his intent.“I don’t want billboards all over this state,” said Bell. “I don’t want that. But I also don’t want people infringing upon inalienable rights that people have. One of those is the right to free speech. One of those is the right to enjoy their own property. And another one is to engage in their own religious thoughts, beliefs and what they want to address in their life.”But with only a few days remaining in the 2010 session, Bell’s bill, which has been posted for passage since March 16th, may be in trouble. The potential loss of millions of federal highway dollars in tight budget times has given House leaders pause. They want more information, because all legislation with a fiscal impact must be approved by the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, which hasn’t seen the bill.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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