'Catholic' sign comes down in Willow Grove

From left, workers from Bernard Sign, Larry Szymkowiak, Rainman Snow and John McElroy take down the Catholic Shop sign from the side of the building where the shop is, on York Rd. in Willow Grove. (Photo by Carolyn Davis)

No sign from above, the 2-foot-tall letters made of aluminum and plastic merely trumpeted the presence of "The Catholic Shop" around the corner.

But as workmen removed them Friday morning under a threatening gray sky, the letters also became a sign of the winners and losers in the clash between Upper Moreland Township and St. Jude Religious Stores, owner of the Catholic Shop of Willow Grove.

Several shop customers wondered whether the real issue was not township code, but the word Catholic.

"I think it's an absolute disgrace," Peggy Clark, 77, said as she shopped in the store. "I think it's discrimination against Catholics."

The township solicitor disagreed.

"Of course it wasn't an anti-Catholic thing," said Catherine M. Harper. "It's ridiculous - I'm Catholic, half the Board of Commissioners is Catholic. It was a zoning thing. Much less sexy than a religious problem."

The controversy began in 2012, after the shop moved from the Willow Grove Shopping Plaza across the street to a less-expensive storefront at 125 York Rd.

Right from the start, customers had trouble finding the shop, whose shelves, walls, and hooks are filled with religious goods ranging from communion dresses to crèches to crucifixes, from saints on holy cards to angelic figurines encased in snow globes.

Russell Davis, the company president, decided to take action. In October 2012, he applied to erect a sign, stating it would appear on "125-133 York Rd."

The township approved the application days later, with standard language about its being subject to codes and ordinances.

By the township's reckoning, however, the sign was erected on a wall on municipal property, not on the building owned by Davis' landlord. The township sent Davis notices saying the sign was out of bounds. Upper Moreland, not Davis' landlord, had owned the wall for years, Harper said, since buying the end unit of a building and demolishing it to make room for a park.

The large, white letters, visible to southbound motorists on York Road, overlooked the township's Memorial Park. The code required putting it on the business' rental property unless other arrangements had been made, she said.

Davis fought the township order. He went to commissioners' meetings to plead his case. He said at one meeting, a commissioner asked him what the store's relationship was to the Catholic church.

"I was pretty dumbfounded," Davis said. "I said, 'What?' "

The commissioner asked again, and Davis replied there was no relationship, he said. He would not say whether he thought the question was anti-Catholic.

"You can make your own conclusions from there," he said Friday.

A back-and-forth followed. The township filed a complaint in District Court, which Harper said found in the township's favor. Davis hired lawyer Caroline A. Edwards to file an appeal of that decision in Montgomery County Court. Davis filed an appeal with Upper Moreland's Zoning Hearing Board. The board denied the appeal, according to court files.

Davis started a petition drive and collected 14,000 signatures at the shop and in the community, he said. A local Catholic church pastor wrote commissioners a letter, asking them to allow the sign to stay where it was and emphasizing that the shop's merchandise was attractive to people of all faiths.

Neither side would budge. This year, after spending more than $20,000 fighting the township order, Davis agreed to settle Upper Moreland's lawsuit.

He will pay a fine of $1,000 and agreed to remove the sign no later than May 31, a date agreed upon because it's after the height of first communion season, both sides said.

The township is satisfied with the result, Harper said.

Davis is not. He has asked his landlord whether he can end the York Road lease early so he can move the shop elsewhere. His other stores are in places where government is eager to have them, he said.

And though Davis still will not say whether he thinks discrimination was a factor, he does call the local government's actions "kind of heavy-handed."

His attorney, Edwards, said everyone's reactions sounded about right: "They say the mark of a good compromise is nobody is satisfied."