Visalia youth remove Black Lives Matter signs from St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Sunday after Visalia Code Enforcement said the signs were in violation of a local ordinance.(Photo: Joshua Yeager)

Visalia youth and parishionersremoved dozens of signs from a prayer fence at St Paul's Episcopal Church on Sunday after city officials said the signs were in violation of a local ordinance.

The signs had messages such as "Black Lives Matter," "Racism is an illness" and "Love Conquers All." The signs were meant to promote equality and send a message that Visalia is inclusive of all, organizers said.

"These are issues that the community should be praying about. My church offered what we thought was a sanctuary for young people to put their signs up," Rev. Suzy Ward said. "I had no idea it was something not to be allowed."

Visalia Code Enforcement recently sent a letter to the church, saying that the signs are in violation of the city's sign code. According to the ordinance, the signs are considered "snipe," a legal term that refers to signs placed on fences, trees, light posts, and public right of ways.

Dozens of Black Lives Matter signs hang on a fence at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in October.(Photo: Joshua Yeager)

So-called snipe signs are forbidden under the ordinance, whether the fence is on private property or public. The ordinance does not discriminate based on the content of the signs.

"The removal of signs (these or any others)is in keeping with our standard sign ordinance. The content of the signs is irrelevant. They could be campaign signs, garage sale signs, or Grateful Dead Forever signs," Visalia City Manager Randy Groom said in an email.

Code enforcement officers have removed1,991 snipe signs in public places in 2020 so far, according to city data. The department has had seven violations on private property.

Melissa Flores and her daughter Jocelyn Flores, 4, browse Black Lives Matter signs along the El Diamante campus Monday, June 29, 2020. Supporters took some signs down Monday afternoon amid concerns opponents were planning do so before Visalia Unified. They hope to find a new home for the signs. Jocelyn watched family members make some of the signs and wanted to see them displayed.(Photo: Ron Holman)

Many of the church signswere previously displayed on a fence at El Diamante High School. Visalia Unified School District officials removed the signs following repeated incidents of vandalism and a confrontation with an adult.

The signs were then moved to College of the Sequoias before they were vandalized again and security declined to intervene, organizer and recent El Diamante graduate John Piper said. He picked up the posters before he noticed they were covered in urine.

That's when Ward offered St. Paul'sprayer fence as a "sanctuary" for the signs and the youth, she said.

"I'm disappointed that this kind of opportunity for young people to express their thoughts about things that are happening across the country have been repeatedly, more than once, denied to them," she said.

Visalia youth and activists echoed that disappointment Sunday morning.

Rev. Suzy Ward removes signs from St. Paul's Episcopal Church's prayer fence on Sunday after Visalia Code Enforcement said the signs were in violation of a local ordinance.(Photo: Joshua Yeager)

"It's a little bit frustrating because here we are trying tobring awareness to important things that are going on in our own city, and yet we keep getting pushed out," said Andrea Navarrette of Visalia. "Where do we go from here? Where is there a safe space for us to be able to express how we feel?"

Organizer Lisa Alvarado said she wants to see more from Visalia city leaders to promote equality.

"I wish that our leadership would be leaders in regardto justice, because now I feel that we're left with a solution that paints our city in a certain way," she said. "It feels a little prejudiced to see other snipe throughout the city not being taken down."

Snipe signs on other church fencesand nearly every Visalia school fence remain up.

City officials said the sign ordinance is enforced frequently regardless of their content, especially during a heated election year.

"We enforce the sign ordinance daily.We are constantly dealing with sign violations, particularly during campaign season when people have too many signs, signs put in the public right of way or on public property, etc." Groom said."This week we have dealt with many, many campaign signs in addition to the other usual variety of signs."

Ward says a neighbor complained about the signs that had hung on her fence since July, sparking the letter from code enforcement. It's unclear who filed the complaint but other neighbors on Main Street Sunday said they supported the signs' message.

"I think they'reamazing and great. It shows unity in our community," Raul Garcia said outside his home next door, adding that hewas confused by the city's action. "After all this time, why (remove them)now?"

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks and housingfor the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.

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Visalia orders church to remove Black Lives Matter signs from 'prayer fence,' citing ordinance - Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register

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