Banner raises questions about church, state separation

? A street banner the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce has erected to promote San Clemente is being removed from public property after a local resident questioned whether its image of a Christian cross is compatible with separation of church and state.

The banner depicts a tower at San Clemente Presbyterian Church. The banner says “San Clemente, Love It.”

It’s one of about 80 banners the Chamber of Commerce displays on light poles along San Clemente’s main highway.

Other banners depict beach scenes, a skateboarder and various San Clemente themes.

George Scarborough, San Clemente’s city manager, asked the Chamber of Commerce this week to swap the banner depicting the cross for a different theme after consulting with the city attorney and concluding “there is a potential legal issue.”

Lynn Wood, chief executive of the chamber, said the banner would be removed as soon as possible, though she is saddened by it.

“With what just happened at Fort Hood and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” she said, “I think it’s sad that we can be focused on a banner and not looking at the big picture of what’s going on in this world.”

Susan Pierce, a local resident, sent an e-mail to San Clemente Mayor Lori Donchak on Oct. 29 saying she had noticed the banner and that “it seems to be inappropriate on public property.”

“Can public funds be expended for church and religious symbol display?” she asked. “Can public property be used to display a religious symbol or structure?”

Pierce could not be reached for further comment.

Donchak referred the inquiry to the city manager in an e-mail Nov. 1, asking him, “I know this is a chamber initiative, but do you have any thoughts on this one? Do we contribute funds to the banner program?”

The answer is yes. The banner program is part of a $50,000 subsidy the City Council provides the Chamber of Commerce for visitor promotion.

Wood said banners promoting San Clemente have the city’s main highway for five or six years.

“You know, it’s just beautiful pictures of different scenes in San Clemente,” she said. “And that’s a scene of San Clemente.”

Wood said she believes San Clemente was one of the first cities to display these types of banners.

“We get tons of calls on these banners,” she said. “We had different cities calling us and asking how we did it. There’s other cities that it’s catching on with because it’s so pretty and it’s so unique to the town.”

Wood said the banners are popular and that Phil Tessier, who produces the banners for the chamber from photographs, makes miniature versions for people who want copies.

“This is the first time we’ve had someone want us to take something down,” Wood said.