HARLEM — A city-issued violation could force the controversial Atlah Worldwide Church to take down its controversial sign — which often displays homophobic and racist messages — after multiple failed attempts by critics who tried to pressure the church to put a stop to what they called hate speech.
The church on 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue — which is a landmarked building — was hit with five violations Thursday for altering the structure without permits, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission
Atlah’s infamous sign, which Pastor James David Manning uses to broadcast messages like “Jesus would stone homos,” and “Obama has released the homo demons on the black man,” was installed without the commission's authorization, spokeswoman Damaris Olivo said.
The violations were issued because the sign was erected without approval, not because of the content of the messages it displayed, Olivo said.
“Please keep in mind that the Commission cannot legally regulate the content of a sign, however, permits must be obtained for the installation of signage on landmark properties,” she said.
Manning was not immediately available for comment.
Atlah's owner must appear before the Environmental Control Board at 9:30 a.m. on May 4. If found guilty the judge can issue fines until the violation is corrected, Olivo said.
If the church continues to ignore the violations, the city can continue to fine the church until they take the sign down, she added.
The owner can try to get a permit to retroactively legalize the work that is in violation, she added.
Other violations issued to the church include removing the second-floor balcony without permission, replacing the ironwork, installing a fence on Lenox Avenue and putting a new door on 123rd Street, according to the Landmarks Commission.
Community groups have been protesting against the sign for years.
Stacy Parker Le Melle, who lives across the street from the church, has organized fundraisers in protest of the sign. They have raised $17,000 for local LGBTQ groups this year.
“I am grateful that the city is taking the violations seriously,” she said. “As a neighbor it’s disturbing to see hate speech every day.”
Le Melle would like to see Manning be a good neighbor and stop posting hateful messages. The messages are especially hurtful because they come from a religious institution, she said,
The city first notified Atlah about the violations in May 2013, but the church did not respond to a warning letter, Olivo said.
In June 2014, the city followed up with five more letters after a local preservationist filed a complaint. Again, the letters were not answered, Olivo said.
“The commission’s first priority is to work with property owners to adjust violations,” she said. “Usually the property owner works with staff to resolve the violations. In this instance unfortunately we have to issue a Notice of Violation because the property owner has not been cooperative.”
Michael Henry Adams, the preservationist who reported the unauthorized work in June, would like to see the city take more action against the church.
“I just wish that beyond the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city would enforce the hate crime ordinance that exists in this city,” he said. “To put a sign that says 'The president is a homo,' that may not be illegal. But to put up a sign that says 'Jesus would stone gays and stoning is still the law,' that to me is a sign that incites violence in a community where a transgender woman was killed in front of a police precinct just a year ago.”