The New Braunfels City Council took a step Monday night towards banning religious speech on street banners.
Council members approved the first reading of an updated policy that spells out what types of language can be displayed on the advertising banners.
New Braunfels Utilities, the city-run utility, has been hanging banners promoting local nonprofit events for decades for a small fee.
The practice became a hotly contested issue last year when one banner was perceived as promoting a religion and the city removed it.
Angry residents took to the streets last December when the city removed two banners that read, "Keep Christ in Christmas."
The banners were paid for by the Knights of Columbus and were hung by NBU crews on city-owned property.
When someone complained the city was promoting a religion, the banners came down just a few days before Christmas.
"We identified that that was not part of what we should be doing," said NBU CEO Paula Difonzo. "We are the local municipal-owned utility, which means we're owned by the city and are part of government so we felt it was more appropriate to remove the banner."
Difonzo said the utility typically hangs about 75 banners each year in four designated areas of town leading to Main Plaza. The intent is to give local nonprofits a way to promote their events.
"The program is really designed to try to give a high-profile venue to the local nonprofits, particularly our small ones that don't have a lot of advertising dollars," Difonzo said.
The current ordinance regarding the banners is pretty broad, according to Mayor Gale Pospisil, so the city has written a new policy to clarify who can use the banners and what they can say.
"We have never allowed political advertising or commercial advertising or religious advertising," Pospisil said. "But it's not specifically stated and that's where some of the problems came in."
Pospisil said the new ordinance is much more detailed and is designed to avoid future conflicts.
Even so, critics argue the city is trying to stifle free speech; the mayor disagrees.
"We're just trying to make sure this banner is used for the purpose for which they're intended and it's to publicize events of importance to the community," Pospisil said.
Difonzo said they've already received a banner request from the Knights of Columbus that has similar language to the sign that was taken down last year, although this year they are promoting a musical titled "Keep Christ in Christmas."
Difonzo said they are scheduled to sit down and discuss the banner with the group but no decision has made on whether or not it fits the permitted use.
Meanwhile, the city council is expected to vote on the updated banner policy at its next meeting later this month.