"Thou shalt not steal" is a shared societal principle that, by law, protects our private property, religious or otherwise, from being taken by others at will. That is, at least, until your private property becomes offensive to your local homeowners' association.
An enraged family in Pittsburgh is accusing their homeowners' association of "stealing" the beloved Virgin Mary statue that they had displayed in front of their Robinson Township condominium.
The homeowners' association has admitted to the "theft," conceding that they did indeed have the 150-pound cement statue removed from the Vasko family's home -- but only because it was placed on "common ground" where homeowners are legally banned from displaying anything.
To add insult to injury, the Vasko family have been slapped a hefty fine for every month that they violated the policy, and have racked up a bill of over $4,000. Until the fine is paid, the homeowners' association has announced, it will hold the Virgin Mary statue in custody and have suspended the Vasko family's rights to park on their own property.
"Would that be extortion or kidnapping?" An irate Steven Vasko told television station KDKA 2. "You tell me, I don't know."
This is not the first time this year that local homeowners' associations have drawn fire for questionably strict enforcement of covenant rules. In June, a 77-year-old Army veteran in Macedonia, Ohio, was threatened with legal action for having an American flag flying in his front yard -- in potential violation of the "Freedom to Display the American Flag Act" of 2005.
Similarly, in July, a couple in Bossier City, La., were sued by their homeowners' association for refusing to remove a front yard banner supporting their son, who was serving as a Marine in Afghanistan at the time. According to the couple's lawyers, this viciously "attacked" the homeowners' First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.
Similar defenses could be used in this case, where sensitive issues such as religious expression are forced into the limelight. Because the object in question is an "article of faith," it is argued by the American Civil Liberties Union that the right of "families to erect [religious] monuments on their own property is constitutionally protected, regardless of whether it is public or private and regardless of whether someone is offended or not."
And it looks like Vasko plans to leverage that argument until he gets his statue back.
"This is religious persecution. This is discrimination," Vasko says. "Is it a losing battle to hold your ground? No. If you are [losing], then we might as well all quit as Americans."