Oct. 26, 2002. 12:50 AM
Sign in shop window draws wrath of church
Garth Woolsey

You can argue with Ken Bernacky's contention "Geno is God," but mess with his right to say it at your peril.

For the time being, at least, Bernacky has had to take down the sign in the front window of his shop on Main Street in East Hartford, Conn., the one declaring his support for, if not exactly his worship of, Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team.

In his neck of the woods, the UConn women rule, having finished last season 39-0 and NCAA champions. Auriemma is a four-time U.S. national coach of the year, with a 464-98 career record entering his 18th season at the well-respected institution of higher learning.

Thus, Bernacky's three-word hymn of praise: "Geno is God." The same sort of innocent deification happens all the time with sports fans and the heroes they, er, worship.

But this all isn't about basketball any more, not after civic officials ordered the sign removed from Bernacky's Stereo Surgeons on Thursday. Turns out officials at St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the shop thought the message was blasphemous and pressured the town to impose a little-known and little-used bylaw banning signs that celebrate an event that happened more than 60 days before. The town threatened to impose a fine of $25 (U.S.) for each day the offending bit of paper stayed up.

"I think I'm fighting for the right of free speech and that is exactly what I want the church to have also," Bernacky, 52, said by phone yesterday. "They have the right to disagree with what I have to say; they don't have the right to censor me, though."

He has put up the same sign for three years along with one (still standing), that says, "We Love UConn Women's Basketball" and lists the team members. "Why don't they have a problem with that one?" he wonders.

Shirley Finney, administrator at the church, expressed disapproval over the sign last spring and this week told reporters: "God is God. God is not Santa Claus and God is not Geno."

Of course not - if he were to score, say, three goals tonight everyone knows God would be Mats Sundin.

Says Bernacky: "In my youth we would sit around and listen to Eric Clapton and we would say, `Clapton is God.' That is a very well-known saying. This is a metaphor. This is a takeoff on `Clapton is God.' If I said to you, `Corvettes fly,' would you think they have wings and they scoot up there with the crows, or would you think they are fast? Anyone with an IQ over 80 realizes that."

The sign, he adds, is simply a way "to bring an aliveness to our local neighborhood and to celebrate a local event. It's not that any more, though, it's defending the right of free speech."

As for his own religious convictions, he says: "I make the sign of the cross every time I drive anywhere near any animal that's been run over on the road. I speak to God daily. I don't go to church that often, but I consider myself a religious man."

Bernacky is enlisting the support of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union after his case made the editorial page of the Hartford Courant, which said: "Basketball is all-consuming to some folks, and such tributes are meant to make people smile.

"It's not like Mr. Bernacky is advocating drug use or cursing in print. He should be able to post his beliefs on his own property without being labeled a heretic."

How about Geno's Huskies? Will they be, you know, touched by the Great Hoopster again this season?

"I guess they're okay," Bernacky said. "They haven't started yet. But right now basketball is the farthest thing from my mind. ... I'm an electronic technician, I'm just a simple working guy. I'm on the point of overload from all of this."

God help him, he deserves all our prayers.

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