BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Jimmy Harston wants his religious-themed billboards to help save people, but his efforts may cost Kentucky money.
Harston, a Scottsville resident, is the backer of multiple billboards along Interstate 65 in southern Kentucky with messages including “Jesus Died for Our Sins.” They have sparked a legal fight that could determine if the state remains eligible for millions in federal road dollars.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals is weighing Harston’s case after he lost two lawsuits brought by the state, which considers the signs a nuisance that violates the 1965 Federal Beautification Act, the Bowling Green Daily News reports.
Kentucky could lose up to 10 percent of federal road dollars if it fails to effectively control outdoor advertising.
“The judges do not have a problem with the content of the signs,” said Harston’s attorney, Pat Ross. “But the judges agreed that … the signs fall within the billboard act.
Harston was given 60 days to remove the signs, but Ross said they can stay up while the appeals are pending.
Harston, a real estate developer, designed billboards and put them up on the properties of people who want to express their religious beliefs.
One reads, “If You Died Today Where Would You Spend Eternity?” and another says “Hell is Real.” The signs are within 660 feet of the Interstate 65 right of way and visible from the road. The state says the Federal Beautification Act guidelines apply to them.
Harston said he was advised he did not need a permit because the signs are not advertising.
“They are nonprofit,” said Harston.
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe, however, said if the sign is intended to attract the public’s attention it is advertising and requires a permit.
“We will let the legal case play out … it’s in the hands of the lawyers,” Wolfe said.
Harston said Ross advised him the signs were going on private property and not regulated by the state.
Two judges disagreed, reaching the conclusion that the signs fall under the federal law.
Donnie Kimbro, whose property features one of the signs, said the ruling infringes on his rights.
Wolfe said the cabinet contends — and the judges agree — that signs don’t have to be commercial to be advertising.
The controversy attracted the attention of state legislators. State Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, filed a bill seeking to exempt some noncommercial messages on billboards from state regulation.
Bell said Harston’s signs aren’t commercial and that the blunt Christian messages are part of the reason the state targeted them for removal.
“The Constitution says the government should take no steps to discriminate against practice of religion and free speech,” Bell said.
Wolfe, though, said the billboards’ content had nothing to do with the enforcement decision.
“This is strictly about enforcing the law,” Wolfe said.
Bell’s bill passed the house 80-16, but stalled in the Senate and died when the General Assembly adjourned in the spring.
Harston also has erected signs in Ohio, Texas and Arkansas. He said he has had a little trouble erecting a sign outside Raleigh, N.C., and that Ross is working with the transportation department there.
However, he said he has not had trouble like he has in his home state.
“I don’t know why they want the signs down,” Harston said.