Controversy over 'God Bless America' yard signs being banned in Bartow was misrepresented: Mayor

BARTOW, Fla. - UPDATE  9:30 p.m.

Residents of Bartow were told Monday night that their "God Bless America" signs can stay in their yards.

This comes after a whirlwind few days that landed the small city in the national spotlight.

"The last few days has been kind of a downer for me as mayor," said Bartow Mayor James F. Clements.

Clements told ABC Action News controversy over a yard sign that says, "God Bless America," was misconstrued and misrepresented by national media outlets.  Ultimately, this led to city leaders receiving death threats and hate mail.

Last week, about 20 residents received notes from code enforcement officers telling them to remove the signs.  They were also told if the signs were not removed they would be fined.

Under city ordinance, all temporary signs are banned. 

Mayor Clements said national media failed to understand that it was never about what the sign said or religion.  He feels at least one national media outlet sensationalized the story by calling the city unpatriotic and anti-religion.

At a city commissioner's meeting Monday night, the Mayor heard from upset residents.  However, before they spoke, the Mayor told everyone in attendance the signs could stay and that the ordinance is under review and will be rewritten.

"It is a fine line and we have got to find the balance between doing nothing and locking down everything," Mayor Clements explained.

Bartow City Manager George Long also addressed those in attendance.  Long said the ordinance was written 13 years ago and needs to be updated.

He also tried deflecting any anger their may be toward code enforcement officers by saying, the officers were only following the instructions they were given.

"We have no intention of trampling anyone's First Amendment rights," Mayor Clements said.

City leaders hope to have the ordinance rewritten by the holidays. 

Meanwhile, the signs can stay and the Mayor said no one who received notices to remove those signs will be fined.

Most in attendance applauded city leaders and their plan to change the ordinance. 

"I am pleased that we have commissioners that will sit on this board, good men that will do something," said resident Marvin Pittman.

EARLIER

A battle over a yard sign saying "God Bless America" is brewing right now in Bartow.

The city only allows them around the 4th of July, but residents want to keep them up year-round. 

On Monday, a group went to the Bartow City Commissioner's meeting in hopes of convincing commissioners to change the current ordinance and allow the God Bless America yard signs.  

"This is my 'God bless America' sign," said Bartow resident Ed Watson.

He proudly displays his sign right in the front yard of his Bartow home, and plans to keep it there, even though he knows the city is no longer allowing them. 

"Not only am I protesting them telling us I can't put it up on my own property, but our soldiers are over there dying every day for our freedom over here, and we're letting a few politicians come tell us we can't put them up."

According to Bartow City Code Enforcement, the signs passed out by the First Baptist Church of Bartow violate a city ordinance. 

Officials say it has nothing to do with the message, it's simply a matter of law-- temporary signs cannot be displayed period. 

Monday night, City Comissioners will discuss the 13-year-old sign ordinance, and many residents, including Ed, plan on being there. 

"It makes me mad that we can't honor God and America. What's next?  Are they going to come up and tell us that we can't do this on our own property?"

The head of Bartow's Code Department says code enforcement has not issued any fines for the God Bless America signs, nor do they plan to, even if the ordinance isn't changed. 

However, he says he does expect commissioners to review the current ordinance.

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