PINELLAS PARK — Trying to defuse a growing controversy, code officers spent Friday morning plucking religious signs out of public rights of way and ordering a store owner to remove his pro-Obama sign.
The signs reveal an escalating war between Christians and store owner Randy Heine, an atheist, over the proper way to conclude the phrase, "One nation under —."
Heine has enraged Christians with his phrasing: "One nation under Obama."
Some Christian activists maintain the only proper way to complete the sentiment is, "One nation under God." Heine says some of them have been making their point by defacing the sign he put it up the day before Obama was inaugurated.
The latest vandalism occurred around 11:30 p.m. Monday when a man and a woman, wearing hoods, climbed over the fence surrounding the sign, spray painted out the word Obama and substituted the word God.
Heine reported the vandalism Tuesday. His subsequent harsh words about Christians inspired 14 people to picket his property Thursday.
By Friday morning, white signs with red lettering and crosses were seen up and down Park Boulevard — in rights of way and on the lawn in front of Park Station, a Pinellas Park city building.
City spokesman Tim Caddell said the signs in front of Park Station were taken away as soon as they were noticed, and code officers removed the signs in the rights of way.
"They were removed not because of what they say, but because they shouldn't be on city property," Caddell said. "They were removed as anybody else's illegal signs would be."
Meanwhile, Heine received two notices of violations from Pinellas County code enforcement. His business is in the county, but the city has control of the rights of way in the area.
The letters told him to remove the Obama sign and the fence around it by Feb. 27 or face $1,000-a-day fines on each violation. County regulations allow only one freestanding sign on most business property. As for the fence, it is a foot too high and was put up without a permit.
Heine said he does not plan to remove the sign. He said it amounts to political speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Besides, he said, other businesses along Park have more than one freestanding sign but have not been cited.
Pinellas County code enforcement director Todd Myers denied targeting Heine.
Officers visited the property because they received an anonymous complaint the week of Feb. 8, he said. Myers conceded that other businesses along Park may also be violating the sign ordinance and said he would see that code officers take a look.
Heine tangled with county code officers in the 1980s when he put up a sign saying, "Coming soon, God's will abortion clinic."
In the latest cases, Heine said he's willing to wage against all comers. "They started it. They defaced my sign," Heine said. "I'm going to finish it."