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Thou shall not post signs on public property

July 4, 2009


By MICHAEL C. DUKE

Missionary leader Jim Pratt stands in front of signs he posted on a public footbridge outside the JCC. Depending on his audience, Pratt refers to himself as “rabbi” or “messianic rabbi.”
On June 28, a group of Christian missionaries, posing as “Jews,” violated city and state ordinances by attaching signs to the footbridge that spans Brays Bayou, facing S. Braeswood Blvd., directly across the street from the Jewish Community Center of Houston.

These signs bore messages that encourage Jews to accept Jesus as “lord” and “savior.”

Houston City Code (Sec. 28-38) prohibits posting unauthorized signs on curbs, sidewalks, streets, public spaces or public property (Code 1968, § 3-2; Ord. No. 70-1747, § 1, 10-6-70). Similarly, State of Texas Transportation Code (Section 393.002) prohibits the posting of signs on the right of way of a public road. Maximum fines for violating both ordinances are $500 per sign, per violation.

Upon seeing the signs attached to the bridge, neighborhood resident, Ira Bleiweiss, informed the missionaries that their signs were violating city law. Bleiweiss is founder of Bridge Houston, a rapidly growing grass-roots Israel advocacy group that also is dedicated to promoting healthy Jewish-Christian relations.

The missionaries replied to Bleiweiss’ approach, saying that the law did not apply to them, Bleiweiss said. He then notified the Precinct 5 Constable office.

A constable responded to the call, but was told by the missionaries that they had a permit for the signs. After Bleiweiss determined that the missionaries did not have a permit, as claimed, he called Houston police. Before the HPD officers arrived, the missionaries removed their signs from the railing, but not before Bleiweiss took photos with his digital camera.

Bleiweiss met the officers, showing them photos and copies of the no-sign-posting laws. He also presented a letter from the city attorney’s office, indicating that the municipal ordinance will be enforced. The officers were professional and even-handed, Bleiweiss noted. They issued the missionaries a one-time warning.

“This messianic group doesn’t respect the commandment: ‘Thou shall not bear false witness,’” Bleiweiss observed. “Nor do they respect commandment 28-38 of the Houston city code: ‘Thou shall not post signs on public property.’ ”

The missionary group behind the signs is Beth Yeshua HaMashiach. Founded and supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, the church self-identifies as a “messianic synagogue.”

Nearly every Sunday for the past several years, Beth Yeshua has sent missionaries to proselytize Jews outside the JCC. These missionaries masquerade as “Jews” by wearing kippot and giving Hebrew names to Christian concepts. They argue that Judaism is an inferior religion, made complete only by acceptance of “Yeshua” (a Hebrew name they give to Jesus).

In the past, the missionaries had attached a large banner to trees facing the JCC, and placed missionary materials in a neighborhood mailbox, in at least one confirmed case. The JH-V reported in April that both tactics appeared to violate laws. Since that report, the mailbox fliers stopped, and the missionaries began holding their signs. June 28 was the first time the signs were seen attached to the footbridge.

Bleiweiss said he and several neighborhood residents repeatedly have asked the missionaries not to proselytize Jews outside the JCC. “How would Christians feel if Muslims were standing outside the local YMCA, telling them that their Christianity can only be completed by accepting Muhammad?” he asked.

“These messianics outside the JCC continue to show a complete disrespect, not only for interfaith, Jewish-Christian relations, but also a disregard for the law,” Bleiweiss said.

The missionaries have defended their operations by claiming freedom of speech. When challenged by Bridge Houston members on issues of credibility, respect and legality, the group’s leader has responded by speaking in tongues.

Bridge Houston recommends that people call the police if they see the missionaries violating laws.

Copyright © 2009 Jewish Herald-Voice. All rights reserved.

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