In New York, there is a history of religious people being treated worse than everyone else in the eyes of the law. In one prominent example, a New York City policy banned religious groups including Bronx Household of Faith from renting public spaces for worship services, even though other groups were allowed to rent them for a variety of purposes.
Bronx Household of Faith filed a lawsuit challenging the policy in 1995, and after two decades of litigation, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio changed the policy to treat religious groups equally. But New York City isn’t the only jurisdiction with a history of religious discrimination.
Read on to learn about how Alliance Defending Freedom represented a Christian small-business owner from upstate New York.
Who was Daniel Burritt?
Daniel Burritt was a devout Christian business owner who owned and operated a bridge-building business called “Acts II Construction, Inc: Building Bridges for Jesus.” He ran the business from his own private property just west of Gouverneur, New York.
As a Christian, Daniel knew it was his job to spread the Gospel message of Jesus as effectively as possible. One way he did that was by sharing the Gospel message on his tractor trailer while it sat on his private property. But the state of New York tried to target him for exercising his free-speech rights in this way.
In August 2007, Daniel parked the trailer he owned in the grass on his property, which was at the edge of Route 11. Daniel had painted Gospel messages on the front and both sides of his trailer, and they were visible to people driving by.
But about nine months later, Daniel received a letter from an employee of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYDOT). The letter accused Daniel of violating NYDOT regulations by encroaching 12 feet onto the public right of way, failing to get a permit for his trailer, and displaying messages on both the front and sides of the trailer.
The letter claimed Daniel’s trailer was an “illegal sign,” and it said that unless Daniel addressed the alleged violations in the next 30 days, the trailer would be considered a “public nuisance” subject to removal.
Obtaining a permit was a costly process that includes at least three separate fees, one of which must be renewed annually. The permit regulations included other burdensome provisions, such as the requirement that if Daniel were ever to move his trailer, he would need to submit a separate application and pay the fees all over again.
Furthermore, other New Yorkers were not required to obtain permits for the messages on their trailers. The NYDOT employee who wrote the letter told Daniel that “for sale” signs and signs advertising activities that are conducted on the property did not require a permit.
By placing more restrictions on Daniel’s religious speech than other types of signs, NYDOT was violating the First Amendment. Daniel moved the trailer so that it was not encroaching on public property and removed the Gospel message from the front while keeping the messages on the sides intact, but he declined to go through the laborious process of obtaining a permit because the requirement was unconstitutional.
In June 2008, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on Daniel’s behalf and requested both a temporary restraining order and an injunction allowing Daniel to keep displaying the Gospel message on his trailer. NYDOT then agreed to let Daniel keep displaying his message while the lawsuit proceeded, which eliminated the need for a restraining order.
In December 2008, a federal district court ruled in Daniel’s favor and issued an order temporarily barring NYDOT from removing Daniel’s trailer. Following this ruling, NYDOT agreed in a settlement to allow Daniel’s trailer to remain on his private property and display Gospel messages without requiring a permit.
About a year after this victory, Daniel followed God’s calling to be a missionary. During this work, he brought the good news of Jesus Christ to 28 countries on five continents. In July 2020, God called his faithful servant Daniel home to spend eternity with Him.
- August 2007: Daniel placed his trailer displaying Gospel messages on his property. It was visible from Route 11.
- May 2008: A NYDOT employee sent Daniel a letter accusing him of violating NYDOT regulations.
- June 2008: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against NYDOT for infringing on Daniel’s First Amendment rights.
- December 2008: A federal district court issued an order temporarily barring NYDOT from removing Daniel’s trailer while the lawsuit proceeded.
- March 2009: NYDOT agreed in a settlement to permanently allow Daniel to keep his trailer displaying Gospel messages parked on his private property without needing a permit.
The bottom line
The government cannot restrict religious speech more than it restricts other types of speech.