COA cuts down man’s claims grass ordinance unconstitutional

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A Bloomington man who opposes treating or cutting his lawn for environmental reasons could not convince the Court of Appeals that a city ordinance is unconstitutional or void for vagueness.

Alexander Gul chooses not to mow his lawn, water it or treat it with any chemicals, a decision that has led to nearly $3,000 in fines and costs from the city of Bloomington for violating a city ordinance requiring grass not be more than eight inches tall. He says his natural yard is a statement of his environmental belief that the overuse of chemicals, water and lawnmowers to maintain a traditional law is harmful to the environment.

In Alexander Gul v. City of Bloomington, 53A04-1408-MI-1428, Gul appealed a citation issued in July 2013. The trial court granted the Bloomington Board of Public Works’ motion for summary judgment that the ordinance is not unconstitutional and is not facially invalid.

Appeals Judge John Baker pointed out there is a dearth of caselaw interpreting or applying the conscience clause of Article 1, Section 3 in a non-religious context. The judges decided that the drafters of the Constitution did not intend to enshrine a right to believe whatever one desires and also to exercise those beliefs with no regard for the law. If that was the case, then it “would be tantamount to declaring nearly every statute and ordinance on the books in Indiana unconstitutional, as it is possible to find someone, somewhere, with a sincere belief that contravenes every law,” Baker wrote.

The judges concluded Article 1, Section 3 was intended to apply to religious, rather than non-religious, matters of conscience.

They also pointed out that Article 1, Section 9 is not violated by the ordinance because the city’s determination that Gul had abused his right to expression was rational. There is evidence that Gul’s actions constituted a threat to the health, safety and welfare of his neighbors and caused property values to decline.

The judges also rejected his claim that I.C. 36-1-6-9 is violated by the ordinance or that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it doesn’t define “grass.”

“The “vast majority” of Bloomington’s population understands how to maintain their lawns to avoid violating the Ordinance — indeed, it appears to be only Mr. Gul who claims the Ordinance is too vague to understand,” Baker wrote. “We find that the Ordinance is not void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause.”

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