Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 23, 2014

Third Circuit Explains Statute of Limitations in Establishment Clause Challenges in Case Challenging Church Sign

Editor’s note: The following summary is posted with permission from author Professor Ruthann Robson of CUNY Law School. The original posting appears of the Constitutional Law Professor Blog here: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2014/06/third-circuit-on-statute-of-limitations-in-establishment-clause-challenges.html

In August 2008, a municipality erected a sign “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You!,” with a directional arrow and “1 BLOCK” written on it, and depicting a gold cross and a white Bible, on a right of way bordering a property owner’s property. The property owner engaged in a bit of her own speech, on her own property, posting a sign of her own directly in front of the church sign which read “This Church Sign Violates My Rights As A Taxpayer & Property Owner. Residential Neighborhoods Are Not Zoned For Advertisement Signs!” The municipality threatened the property owner with sanctions for her sign, which she removed. The property owner filed a complaint pursuant to 42 USC §1983 in federal court in November 2012 alleging constitutional violations by the municipality based on the church sign, which remains standing, and her own offending sign, which she had removed. The state statute of limitations for tort claims is two years.

The Third Circuit’s opinion in Tearpock-Martini v. Borough of Shickshinny addressed exactly this problem. The complaint alleged that the “church sign” violated the Establishment Clause, while the threats to prosecute plaintiff for erecting her own sign violated both the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment. Generally, because §1983 does not have a statute of limitations, state law provides the applicable time limitations. The district judge dismissed the complaint based on the statute of limitations because the actions occurred more than two years prior to the filing of the complaint. Reversing on the Establishment Clause claim only, the Third Circuit found that the state statute of limitations did not bar the claim.

The plaintiff’s attorney argued that the two year statute of limitations for the church sign should be viewed as a “continuing violation.” As the court noted, this is more often part of a statute of limitations inquiry in an employment discrimination case: “where only in retrospect will a plaintiff recognize that seemingly unconnected incidents were, in fact, part and parcel of a larger discriminatory pattern.” But here, the court accepted the municipality’s argument that the continuing violation doctrine does not apply because the sign “is merely an effect” of the action – – – erecting the sign – – -that was within the statute of limitations.

But the Third Circuit found that the state’s two year statute of limitations was inapplicable because although §1983 does not have a statute of limitations and state law provides the pertinent time limitations, this is true only “if it is not inconsistent with federal law or policy to do so.” Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985). The Court found that Establishment Clause rights are very important and that while other constitutional rights are also important
what further distinguishes Tearpock-Martini’s claim, and Establishment Clause claims in general, is that the traditional rationales justifying a limitations period—“to protect defendants against stale or unduly delayed claims,” “facilitat[e] the administration of claims,” and “promot[e] judicial efficiency,” [citation omitted] —simply have no persuasive force in this context. Tearpock-Martini’s challenge is to a still- existing monument that communicates anew an allegedly unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government each time it is viewed. Strict application of the statutory limitations period both serves no salutary purpose and threatens to immunize indefinitely the presence of an allegedly unconstitutional display.

Moreover, the Third Circuit noted that it could not find any precedent for finding an Establishment Clause challenge time-barred in a passive monument case, and indeed the cases were the opposite, citing, most persuasively, Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) (display of Ten Commandments challenged 40 years after installation).

The Third Circuit’s conclusion seems exactly right: how can there be a statute of limitations on an Establishment Clause violation of a passive monument? However, in this case, because this particular plaintiff knew about the sign, and even objected to it, one could have expected her to act more quickly. Yet the very notion of an Establishment Clause violation caused by a still existing monument or even sign is that it is a continuing one.

Tearpock-Martini v. Borough of Shickshinny, 2014 WL 2808140 (3rd Cir. 6/23/2014)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/133876p.pdf


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