ACLU backs Pennsylvania artist’s right to display painting in yard

Thursday, August 5, 1999

Butterfly paint...
Butterfly painting in Nancy Bellamy's front yard.

Nancy Bellamy says that she just wanted to “share bright colors and life with some folks” in her suburban Pittsburgh town.

However, when Bellamy, a resident of Upper St. Clair, Pa., decided early last month to post a 4-by-8-foot painting of butterflies in her front yard, the town demanded that she remove her display. Town officials said that her painting, which they characterized as “an expression of sign creativity,” was prohibited by residential zoning laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh has agreed to represent Bellamy if the case proceeds to trial, saying that the town's ordinance is unconstitutional. Bellamy claims the ordinance violates her First Amendment free-expression rights.

“I felt I had just as much right to put up a painting as a sculpture, garden gnome or topiary tree,” Bellamy said.

Witold Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, agrees. He says that while constitutional protection has been given to both political signs and artistic expression, this case is unique, combining the two issues.

“I think it's important to establish the proposition that the rights of artists and artistic expression are equivalent to those of political expression when it comes to the home,” he said.

Bellamy, who holds a bachelor's degree in art, said that she first displayed a painting in her yard in May. It urged town residents to reject a proposal to allow deer hunting in a local park, portraying a mother deer with her fawn. The painting read: “Teach your children well: No Killing.” The town's zoning ordinance permitted the sign because of its political theme. Complying with political-sign regulations, Bellamy removed the sign 72 hours after the town's vote on the issue.

Bellamy said that many people “on both sides of the issue” told her that her painting of the deer was beautiful and suggested that she paint another. Her second painting depicted a summer scene of butterflies, flowers and clouds, with no political message. She says she put up the painting purely for artistic reasons.

“Life gets ugly sometimes and things have not always gone nicely in my life, but I had a bit of joy in being able to share bright colors and life with some folks,” she said.

Bellamy received a letter from the town on July 21 stating that she had five days to remove the sign. Failure to comply would result in a fine of up to $300 a day. If Bellamy wanted to appeal the zoning commission's decision, she would first have to pay a $190 filing fee.

The town's zoning laws allow citizens to post campaign signs, congratulatory signs, real-estate signs, and other signs “relating to residential use”; however, they also state that “a sign which is not expressly permitted or exempted is prohibited.” Because Bellamy's painting did not fit into any of the permitted categories, the town ordered it be removed.

“Given the First Amendment protection for artists as well as homeowners, this is clearly unconstitutional,” Walczak said of the town's ordinance.

Calls placed to the town's attorney and zoning office were not returned.

Meanwhile, the town has agreed not to pursue action against Bellamy for at least a month, Walczak says. He hopes that during that time, Upper St. Clair will revise the ordinance, making it constitutionally agreeable. He says that if the town insists on penalizing Bellamy, the ACLU is prepared to fight.

“Hopefully they'll just take some time and re-craft and re-draft it to fit the First Amendment,” said Walczak.

For now, Bellamy's painting “is still up and will remain up,” according to Walczak.

Bellamy says that she plans to leave the butterfly painting up through the end of the summer, at which time she will replace it with a fall scene featuring witches, cauldrons, leaves and pumpkins.

“Sometimes life isn't pretty; I just wanted to put up something beautiful,” she said. “It just breaks my heart that somebody got pruney and wanted to take it down.”