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The Daily Tar Heel

Church of Reconciliation vandalized with 9 swastikas

Rev. Mark Davidson never expected a handful of spray-painted swastikas as a response to a bus ad his church took out in August.

“There were nine swastikas spray-painted on our building, and the word ‘Nazis’ appeared in a couple of places,” Davidson said of the vandalism discovered on Oct. 28.

“I think most people would conclude that this is someone who’s angry about our bus ad,” he said. “We’ve never had an act of vandalism at our church like this.”

Davidson is the pastor at the Church of Reconciliation, which has been at the center of controversy since purchasing a political advertisement to run on Chapel Hill Transit buses.

The ad reads, “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”

In the weeks since the ad appeared on buses, the town has come under heavy scrutiny by everyone from residents to the American Civil Liberties Union, all questioning whether the town can regulate bus advertisements as a form of free speech.

Tonight the Chapel Hill Town Council will discuss whether or not to consider advertising space on buses a public forum — and through that, whether or not to allow political, religious and issue-oriented advertising.

New policies

The council will consider six different policy changes at the meeting, ranging from allowing all advertisements to allowing none at all.

After discovering last Wednesday that it was following an incorrect draft policy, the town stopped accepting any new bus advertisements.

The bus advertisement policy the council approved in 2011 prohibits religious and political advertising — the drafted version did not.

In a memo to the council on Oct. 24, Town Manager Roger Stancil said he could not recall another time in his tenure that such an error had occurred.

Town Council member Penny Rich — who voted against freezing the bus ads at the Oct. 24 meeting — said she wants the council to return to the approved policy before amending it.

“If we were to follow the policy, we wouldn’t even be in this dilemma,” she said. “It’s like a snowball effect of all these cans of worms opening up.”

But Davidson said he was pleased the council allowed the church’s ad to continue to run, and the council should continue that policy.

“Other ads should be welcome,” he said. “It shouldn’t be preferential treatment to our ad.”

Davidson said he was surprised by the reaction other town residents had to the ad.

“We did not think Chapel Hill would be so chilly toward free speech or that that perspective would be so strong in some corners,” he said.

Possible legal issues

But even if the town chooses to return to the original policy, the possibility of litigation still remains.

The council’s decision to stop accepting new ads has prevented a counter-ad to the Church of Reconciliation’s from running.

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The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New York-based organization, has applied to run a new ad on the town’s buses.

The proposed ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Pamela Geller, the organization’s executive director, has successfully sued New York City and Washington, D.C., to allow for her ad to run.

“They made a decision to run the political ad,” Geller said. “It’s incumbent upon them to run our ads.”

“I tried to match the buy,” Geller said. “I didn’t particularly care for the interior, my ads always run on the exterior.”

Fostering conversation

Davidson said volunteers helped paint over the swastikas the same day they were discovered.

Sgt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said Friday police had no suspects for the incident.

Meanwhile, the church is working on designing an event that will foster the conversation members wanted to create with the ad.

“What we still want, and still are working on putting together, is a broad-based public dialogue on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East,” Davidson said.

“That’s what we always intended and we still intend it.”

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