The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Jefferson City over a Kansas City church’s use of a digital sign at its residential location.

The Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City

City code forbids digital displays on properties that are zoned residential.  Antioch Community Church installed a digital sign in 2010, following the lead of the neighboring city of Gladstone, which had done same thing at its park.  An Antioch parishioner had donated the money for Gladstone’s digital display.

A year later, Kansas City employees served the church with notice that its digital sign was in violation of a city code.  Kansas City only permits what it refers to as “monument” signs in residential zones.

The church appealed to the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, and sought a variance to allow for a digital display inside the existing structure, which is a monument sign.  It argued that the digital display would allow the church to change its message more frequently and conveniently, avoiding the hardship of its members having to change the signage in inclement weather.

The board denied the variance, citing the city code which prohibits it from allowing digital signs in residential zones.  It also said the church did not prove undue hardship to justify the variance.

In a document prepared for the state Supreme Court, attorneys for the Antioch Church elaborated on its history, which dates back to 1853.  The document says the influence of the church on the development of the surrounding area is undisputed, noting it sits beside its namesake Antioch Road, just up from the Antioch Center shopping area, and up the street from Antioch Middle School.

The document goes on to say that while the church is zoned residential, it’s sandwiched inside a one mile stretch with commercially-zoned areas on both sides that have a heavy retail presence.

At a hearing held by the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, a church’s representative noted the presence of the digital display on the nearby Phillips 66 sign, and expressed the view that under the Constitution, the City should give “more protection to the word of God than … to the price of gas.”

Attorney Bernard Rhodes argued on behalf of the church Wednesday, saying it’s prominently located on a commercial thoroughfare.  “It’s immediately surrounded by homes, but it’s not in the back of a cul-de-sac,” said Rhodes.  “It’s not three blocks off.  There’s are 13,500 cars that drive by a day.  That’s greater than the population of the entire city of Branson.”

Margaret Sheahan Moran represented the city in front of the court.  She said the church was clearly in a residential area, simply based on the prevalence of homes.

“There’s a video tape that’s part of the evidence in this case,” said Sheahan Moran. “I think it’s exhibit 10.  It shows someone standing there, doing a 360 view of all around it.  And all you see are houses.  So, it’s completely surrounded, behind it, on the sides, across the street.”

Rhodes noted the president of the neighboring homeowner’s association testified at a city zoning board hearing in favor of the church’s digital sign.  He told the judges there had been no complaints about the display from anyone in the area, and said the city was unfairly singling out the church.

“For some reason, someone decided that ‘Oh, there’s a little display on that up there.’  And they picked on that for some ungodly reason.  We don’t understand why.  And we can’t see the sense in the city picking on that.”

Sheahan Moran elaborated on the city’s argument that the church’s request for a variance to allow a digital sign on an existing monument sign is inconsistent with the law.

“I believe the code says that the BZA (Board of Zoning Adjustment) can’t grant anything that’s defined as a sign type, a variance for that, in a district where that sign type isn’t allowed.  And in residential districts, there’s no digital signs allowed, anywhere”.

Antioch Community Church versus the Board of Zoning Adjustment of Kansas City was one of five cases heard by the Supreme Court Wednesday.  A decision will come through an upcoming hand down from the court.