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Church State Issues

Gilbert church receives a sign from (close to) heaven

Jul 22, 2014

Arizona Republic

Even if I am an atheist I think churches should have the same free speech rights as everybody else.

Gilbert church receives a sign from (close to) heaven

Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini looks into why the Gilbert church-sign case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

EJ Montini, columnist | 5 p.m. MST July 21, 2014

Not long ago the small but devout congregation of the Good News Presbyterian Church in Gilbert got a sign from …

No, not God. But close.

The U.S. Supreme Court.

The church learned that the nation's highest court had agreed to hear its case against the city over the roadside signs posted by church members the day before worship services. Stories like this can get drown out in all the day's shouting. It shouldn't.

Essentially, Gilbert has different rules for different signs. According to an article by the Arizona Republic's Parker Leavitt, non-commercial event signs (like those advertising a church service) cannot be placed near a road earlier than 12 hours before the event.

On the other hand, political signs, like those now on street corners all across the Valley, can be planted 60 days before an election. Also, some non-commercial signs can be posted indefinitely.

The church thought this was unfair. Still, fighting city hall would seem to be impossible for a congregation with only a few dozen members, one that holds its weekly services in a senior living facility.

At least until their cause was taken up by Alliance Defending Freedom, a "legal ministry" with a Scottsdale base that, according to its website, "has brought together thousands of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations that work tirelessly to advocate for the right of people to freely live out their faith in America and around the world."

One of those attorneys is Matt Sharp.

"This little church is having its concerns taken up by the highest court in the land," he said. "That's pretty cool."

It's also pretty serious. The Supreme Court doesn't do favors. But it sometimes uses a case brought by a little guy to resolve a much larger issue.

"To us, this is a case about religious freedom and about free speech," Sharp said. "In this instance, the religious content of a sign shouldn't be a determining factor in how long they get to speak, how big they get to speak, where the signs are located. The case really merges the two issues and asks to what extent does the First Amendment protect all speech?"

The church lost in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But similar cases in other parts of the country have gone the other way. So the court's decision to take the Gilbert case (officially called Reed vs. Town of Gilbert) might be its way of trying to settle things. The court should hear the case later this year and issue a ruling around this time next year.

Sharp said there would not have been any problem if Gilbert had created rules that were "content neutral," in other words, the same for everyone.

"Once the government gets into the business of deciding which speech is more important it's a dangerous proposition," he said. "That's why we think it will go our way."

On the other hand, Gilbert town attorney said he expects the Supreme Court to rule in the town's favor.

Given the gaudy campaign banners and markers that have sprouted up like weeds on just about every Valley street corner I'm hoping the court will go off on a tangent and ban all political signs.

Now that would be a miracle.