Methodist church’s crosses approved

One of the three will be 30 feet tall and have a 13-foot representation of a flame.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:27 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A West Broadway church can go ahead with plans to erect three large steel crosses, including one as tall as a three-story building, after a decision by the city Tuesday night.

The Columbia Board of Adjustment voted 4-1 to let Community United Methodist Church put

up a 30-foot cross with a 13-foot representation of a flame attached. The decision ends a six-month effort by the church to win city approval.

The church at 3301 W. Broadway also plans to put up two other crosses without flames that would

respectively reach 26 feet and 22 feet in height.

“We had big dreams,” said Robert Fleming, an attorney for the church, after the board’s decision. “It’s been a long road, but we’re happy to see God’s will being done.”

In January, Columbia’s senior building inspector, Jim Paneck, denied the church’s application because it violated a city ordinance limiting the height and the number of signs allowed.

The board, which has the power to grant zoning requests that have been denied by city inspectors, postponed a decision on the matter in May so the city’s law department could more closely examine the case. In a June 3 memo, Assistant City Counselor Susan Crigler wrote that zoning rules for churches differ from those for other businesses under Missouri law.

“The city is limited in how it can regulate churches,” Crigler said. “In this case, you have to find a health, safety or welfare reason to deny it.”

On Tuesday, board members expressed concern about whether the crosses could distract passing motorists and debated whether their height posed a safety risk. Board member Rex Campbell said the city could face a potentially costly law suit if they denied the church’s request.

“Is this principle worth it?” he asked. “In this case, I don’t think it is.”

In his earlier report, Paneck wrote that the flame on the largest cross classifies it as a sign representing a specific denomination rather than a generic symbol. According to the United Methodist Church Web site, the cross and flame is a registered trademark that can be used to identify official United Methodist agencies and churches.

Businesses on the section of Broadway the church shares with Hy-Vee and the site of a future Wal-Mart are limited to one freestanding sign up to 12 feet tall. But like other property owners, churches can ask the Board of Adjustment to make an exception to those rules. The Methodist church already has a sign facing Broadway and another on a side street.

In a January appeal to the board, Fleming wrote that his client is exempt from zoning rules that would apply to commercial businesses. He also argued that the cross and flame are universal Christian symbols that cannot be regulated on artistic grounds, and that the display is a memorial to deceased members of the congregation and is therefore exempt from an ordinance governing signs.

Fleming said he does not yet know when the church will begin construction, but expects plans will move forward as intended: “We’re going to build what we planned to build.”

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