WASHINGTON – God told Joanne Caldwell to draw religious symbols on the rocks in her yard, the Frederick County woman said, and no homeowner’s association can make her move them.
Caldwell, 49, said God appeared to her in her New Market home last year and inspired her to take a marker to the rocks this spring, guiding her hand as she drew a rosary, a crucifix and wrote words like “Bible” and “heaven,” among other symbols.
“It’s not my yard anymore,” said Caldwell, who said she has consecrated everything in her life — including the yard — to God.
But where Caldwell sees sacred ground, officials at the Lake Linganore Association Inc. see only rocks with graffiti on them. That is a violation of the association’s covenants and they want the rocks gone.
“She was then told (in May) that she either needed to remove the rocks or remove the graffiti and leave them in their natural state,” said Chuck Smith, president of the homeowner’s association.
Smith, who apologized Friday to Caldwell for earlier misunderstandings over the issue, said it is not about religion, it is about upholding the association’s rules. Neighbors also circulated a petition earlier this year complaining that Caldwell’s yard unkempt.
But Caldwell is not budging.
“This violates First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” said Caldwell, who was raised Catholic, but has also worshipped in Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian churches. “I believe that we’ve taken God out of everything…. This isn’t the land of the free but the land of the God- free.”
The dispute began in May, after Caldwell decorated the rocks. She said she was inspired by the visit by God, who talks to her regularly, and by subsequent talks with Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The rocks were already in the yard before Caldwell drew on them. She and Smith estimate they are 1 to 2 feet in size, and she said she has arranged some in a line along the road and others in a triangle, to represent the Holy Trinity.
About that time, the association’s Environmental Control Committee was told that Caldwell had changed the landscaping of her yard without association permission, which is required by the covenants.
The committee sent a letter telling Caldwell she needed to apply for the changes. When she refused, the association’s general manager ordered her to remove the rocks by Oct. 14 or the association would bring in “three-ton equipment” to do the job, tearing up her property in the process, according to Caldwell.
Smith, who became involved in the flap in August, apologized Friday for the “clearly inappropriate” threats by the general manager, who has since left the association. He said there was no deadline to remove the rocks and no intention to demolish her yard.
“We try to work with residents and the situation should have never gotten to this point,” said Smith.
But the rules are the rules, he said.
“Before anybody buys a home on one of our planned unit developments, there are about 30 covenants that they must comply with and they have to sign an agreement,” he said.
Caldwell has been charged with violating three sections of the covenant: having an unkempt yard, having inappropriate “signage” and having obnoxious things like graffiti, said Smith.
In his Friday letter, Smith said Caldwell can move the rocks into her back yard or take them into her home. Rocks that are not visible from the roadway do not need to be moved, he said. The letter also asked her to trim her yard.
The letter gives Caldwell until Nov. 1 to make the changes or appeal her case to the Lake Linganore Association Board of Directors. If the rocks have to be removed by the association as a last resort, Smith said, they will be picked up by hand by maintenance staffers and not with heavy equipment.
He said there was never any threat that Caldwell would be fined. “Typically, if we have to remove things, or say, paint a house, the resident would pay for the work in terms of reimbursement, but there are no fines,” he said.
Smith insists that Caldwell was never persecuted for her religious beliefs, blaming the media for fanning that notion. The association just wants “to see that our covenant is being upheld,” he said.
“I’ve said on television and in print that this isn’t about religious persecution,” he said. “We’re still corresponding with Caldwell. It seemed that ultimatums were drawn in the sand but no one ever discussed alternatives.
“We’re just a simple homeowners association, just a bunch of volunteers,” he said. “We just set up rules that are designed to help everybody live together.”
But for Caldwell “the atheists and communists have already taken over.”
“We can’t have religious expression,” she said of the flap. “The rocks aren’t obnoxious. They may obnoxious to Satan, but not to God.”