Ten Commandments billboard dispute in Mississippi ends with drama-free gentlemen’s agreement

Published 9:51 am Friday, March 23, 2018

A good, old-fashioned gentlemen’s agreement should be sealed up with a couple of shots of whiskey.

But the one Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox and businessman Wayne Wallace reached Monday was a little bit religious in nature, so they probably didn’t drink to it. It was during the middle of the day, anyhow.

Either way, the decision they reached during an on-site meeting in the shade of Wallace’s big Ten Commandments billboard at the corner of Hwy. 51 and Industrial Park Road saved the city a lot of embarrassment. Had they not talked it out there in the wet grass, Wallace and a truckload of supporters would have raised hell (or Heaven, depending on whose side you’re on) in Tuesday night’s city board meeting, and there wouldn’t have been any winners.

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The trouble started last Friday, when city building inspector David Fearn told Wallace his religious display would have to be removed because it did not meet the requirements of the city’s long-standing sign ordinance. Wallace admitted to The Daily Leader he didn’t know he needed a building permit — he built his sign, then tried to apply for the permit once it was up. It’s unlawful in Brookhaven to build without a permit, so Fearn waved the red flag (the big sign is also apparently too close to the right-of-way and doesn’t meet other construction requirements).

But Wallace announced his intention to defy Fearn’s condemnation and planned to bring his case before the board of aldermen last night. Wallace’s supporters got mighty Biblical about the Word vs. the City of Brookhaven, and the stage was set for a great political-religious showdown at 6:30 p.m.

Such a meeting would have put aldermen in a mighty tight spot.

They could have refused to vote on Wallace’s issue, letting the city sign ordinance and building permit requirements speak for themselves. That’s why the city has a building department, a water and sewer department, a street department — the ordinances are there, and the departments to enforce them, so aldermen don’t have to get bogged down in minutiae, voting on individual road sign placement and sewer hookups.

From the law’s point of view, sending Wallace back to Fearn’s judgment without allowing him to plea before the board would have been the right call. From a political standpoint, it would have caused a Great Awakening that resulted in seven new aldermen and a new mayor in 2021.

The board’s other, equally bad option would have been to hear Wallace out and make concessions to his religious appeal that flew in the face of the law. No contractor or property owner would have taken those laws seriously again, and who knows what kinds of signage would have popped up around Brookhaven in the future.

Ever hear of an establishment in Jackson called Danny’s? I’ve heard they have an entirely different outlook on the word “gentlemen.” They also have an advertising budget.

That nasty no-win situation was only 24 hours away when Wallace did the right thing. He sought out Cox, and the two of them brought along Fearn and Ward 5 Alderman Fletcher Grice, and they worked the whole thing out like regular fellas’ to get the dogs called off and avoid a testy board discussion.

“I prayed about it, and I thought, ‘I’m the only one who can stop this,’” Wallace said. “I need to nip this in the bud. And I think they were real receptive, waiting for me to come to them.”

It takes a man to arrive at that conclusion.

Because it takes a man to admit when he’s wrong. And by throwing up his sign with no construction permit and getting cross with the law, Wallace was wrong.

In the end, he swerved first in this game of political chicken — he vowed not to take his sign down, but he will, in fact, remove it in order to make the modifications necessary to bring it into compliance with the city’s sign ordinance. When the Ten Commandments go back up, they will be on metal supports and 10 feet further back off the road.

Wallace’s come-to-Jesus meeting with Cox saved the city what could have ended up being widespread embarrassment at the hands of those itching for a chance to prove the righteousness of Wallace, and the Almighty.

But Wallace didn’t care about being right or wrong. He did what he had to do to comply with the law and preserve his ability to display a strong Christian message, which was all he really cared about in the first place.

“It’s going to work out and God will still get the glory for it,” Wallace said.

I’ll drink to that.

Adam Northam can be reached at adam.northam@dailyleader.com or 601-265-5304.