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Blinking Jesus sign a beacon of debate

Sunday, June 08, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BEDFORD, Pa. -- George Washington slept here.

Of course, there wasn't a flashing neon sign anywhere near his bedroom window to keep him awake.

Bob Foor in front of his "Jesus is Lord," sign that he had erected at night after Bedford Borough chased away the sign company. The $10,000 neon sign shines out onto Route 30 and Interstate 99. With a $1,000-a-day fine hanging over his head, Foor says he will go to court before removing the sign. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

A half-block from Washington's stopover and 209 years later, though, a sign -- 3 1/2 feet tall, 55 feet across -- flashes a red neon "Jesus is Lord" every two seconds, round the clock, 43,200 times a day.

Part of this county seat finds that soothing. Another part, borough leaders included, finds it a garish blotch, the kind that guardians of the town's historic character are likely to lose sleep over.

Borough leaders, saying they take umbrage at the glaring medium, not the message, charge that the sign violates zoning code, have threatened its owner with fines and jail, and are going to court to bring it down.

The sign owner, a 67-year-old used-car dealer who calls himself "a pretty strong Bible believer," counters that Bedford government is trampling free speech and has a high-profile religious liberties group considering whether to take up the fight.

He has his beliefs, Robert Foor said. And he has a sign that cost him $10,000.

"This isn't over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn't begun to sing yet," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, she hasn't even begun to clear her throat."

In the meantime, his sign flashes on.

Bedford, population 3,140, traces its lineage to the French and Indian War and has been a borough for more than 200 years. In 1794, about 36 years after his previous visit here, George Washington returned, this time as president, staying at the local Espy House and commanding the troops who deflated the Whiskey Rebellion.

Today, Bedford's downtown is deemed a historic district, mostly a mix of buildings from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, a place where building owners can't make substantial changes to their storefronts except with the blessings of a five-member, borough-appointed historic review board.

"Things like signs," borough Manager John Montgomery said, "we've tried to keep toned down."

Then along came Foor.

Foor has been selling cars around this town for decades. He runs a lot not far off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In 1970, before he gave up the franchise, he peddled Bedford its first Subarus.

"We were selling them, and we couldn't even pronounce the name," he said. "We thought it was Su-BARROW."

Downtown, Foor owns what was once a Ford garage, a half-block-long building, empty but for wife Sharon Foor's tanning salon and some stored cars.

As Foor tells it, a few years back, he was driving the Southwest, he doesn't recall quite where, and spotted "a big statue of Jesus."

"It made me feel real good to see it," he said.

An idea was born.

"When I pull into a town and see graffiti, I don't feel real good about the place," Foor said. "This sign idea was just something I thought would be an asset to the community. I thought it would make people feel more at ease. I thought people would pat me on the back."

The first incarnation was offered to the borough for consideration about a year ago. Foor wanted to deck the second-floor rear of the old Ford garage, the side peering from downtown across a four-lane highway and the 130-foot-wide Juniata River, with a 20- by 40-foot plywood billboard blazoned "Jesus is Lord."

No, the review board decided in December. The sign would be mounted over windows, and code doesn't allow that.

Foor wouldn't be denied.

He sealed the windows -- three of them, each about 10 by10 feet -- with a wall of cinder blocks on the inside. He tore away the glass and metal window frames from the outside. And what was left were three indentations, each about 10 inches deep, where the windows had been.

Montgomery figured something was cooking.

Three-and-a-half weeks ago, he and the borough solicitor showed up to find a sign company truck parked on a strip of borough ground behind the garage. There, 30 feet up and fixed to one of the window indentations was the first third of Foor's neon message.

"It was just the word Jesus," Montgomery said.

The manager ordered the sign crew off borough ground. Work stopped.

Still, Foor wouldn't be denied.

"I'm not a rich man, and I'm not going to pay for something I can't use," he said. "This cost me $10,000. It's not like I can take it back to Wal-Mart and say, 'Oh, wrong size.' "

Sometime after dark on May 18, three days after the sign crew was ordered out, the other two words of Foor's sign somehow were lifted 30 feet up and into place.

"I don't see how he did it," Montgomery said.

Foor's not saying.

"It happened very mysteriously," he said. "But it would have to be more than one person did it, I'd think."

At 3:30 in the morning, Montgomery's phone rang. It was a dispatcher at Bedford County's emergency control center, following procedure if anything really unusual happened in the borough.

"The word Jesus was lit up," Montgomery said.

The next night, "is Lord" flickered to life, too.

The sign shone out over the four-lane Route 30 bypass on the edge of town. It's the flashing first view motorists get as they travel the only road from the local turnpike interchange into downtown.

So the fight is joined -- borough officials saying they have to curb a code violator, Foor portraying himself as a Christian soldier, marching as to war.

"What about freedom of speech?" said Sandra Dawson, who joined her husband, a Mennonite clergyman, in a petition drive that has gathered about 500 pro-Foor signatures. "He's not harming anybody. He just wanted to show people from the outside that this is a nice community."

"We're not anti-Christian, anti-religion or whatever," Montgomery said. "This is the biggest sign in the borough, flashing on and off. So many things about the sign look so outlandish, and the message has nothing to do with it."

By Montgomery's tally, Foor's legal sins were legion. He tore out windows without review board approval, put up his sign without so much as asking the board, erected a sign that's probably too big and transgressed by using flashing neon.

That's worth at least a $100-a-day fine, a penalty that carries jail time if the assessment goes unpaid, Montgomery said.

Eleven days ago, Foor tried to stay the action by appealing to the borough.

Borough council voted unanimously last week to try trumping the appeal by going to Bedford County Common Pleas Court, asking for an injunction that would bring down the sign.

"If they let this go, anybody can do anything," said John Dellos, chairman of Downtown Bedford Inc., a local merchants group.

If the borough's spoiling for a fight, Sharon Foor said, her husband "will fight this to the end."

He could have a high-profile ally.

The Christian Law Association, a Seminole, Fla., group, says it helps "Christians who are experiencing legal difficulty in practicing their religious faith because of governmental regulation, intrusion or prohibition." Mark Johnson, a lawyer with the group, said the association could decide this week whether to take up Foor's case.

In the meantime, in this town where the sign is topic No. 1 most days, reaction is mixed.

The back-and-forth on a local Internet bulletin board has defense and derision. The local ministerium has yet to discuss the sign, but its president, the Rev. Douglas Friant, says his congregation at Bedford Presbyterian Church offers mixed reviews.

And while Montgomery says the borough would let Foor post his message -- but in nothing short of a more muted sign -- he does offer a halfhearted solution: What if Foor took his $10,000 sign out to his car lot in neighboring Bedford Township?

There, he could have the attention of drivers in the westbound lanes of the turnpike, about 16,500 cars a day by Turnpike Commission estimates.

"I wouldn't hit the local traffic," Foor said. "I did this to do a big blessing to Bedford. And if I help save one soul, it's worth more money than I'll ever make."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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