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Church State Issues

U.S. Supreme Court appears to favor Gilbert church over sign law

Jan 12, 2015

Arizona Republic

Even if I am an atheist, I certainly think the govenrment should treat churches like it treats everybody else. And they are not doing that in Gilbert!!!
"Gilbert's sign code is discriminatory because it stipulates the size and number of signs he can post to advertise his religious services, while allowing political signs to be much larger"

U.S. Supreme Court appears to favor Gilbert church over sign law

Jonathan Reid, The Republic | 3:22 p.m. MST January 12, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday seemed to lean in favor of the Gilbert pastor who claims his First Amendment rights were violated because the town's sign code favors certain forms of speech over others.

Clyde Reed, the pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church, a small congregation that rents space to hold its services, argues that Gilbert's sign code is discriminatory because it stipulates the size and number of signs he can post to advertise his religious services, while allowing political signs to be much larger and stand for an election cycle. The The code also limits the number of hours a non-commercial event sign can be posted before an event.

But attorneys representing Gilbert argue that because the code does not discriminate based on the actual content of such signs - all non-commercial event signs are held to the same standard - Reed's First Amendment rights were not violated.

Oral arguments in the case were presented to the Supreme Court Monday.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the Scottsdale-based conservative Christian activist group representing Reed, asked the Supreme Court whether Gilbert's "mere assertion" that it doesn't discriminate based on the content of a sign means that the code is indeed content neutral.

Kevin Martin, an attorney who has briefed cases before the Supreme Court, said the decision the court comes to will have a large impact on how courts determine First Amendment rights in the future.

"The outcome of this case, and the question, 'what level of scrutiny do you apply to laws that on their face discriminate different kinds of speech?' has ramifications well beyond Gilbert and well beyond simply sign regulations," Martin told the Republic. "You can think of dozens of examples where governments say this type of content cannot be uttered in this part of town or in a certain way. (Those laws) will survive or not depending on what level of scrutiny gets applied."

During Monday's oral arguments Gilbert's attorney, Philip Savrin, made the argument that ruling in favor of Reed would actually limit freedom of speech.

"In order to pass strict scrutiny, the legislatures in these towns and cities across this country would be inclined to ban all signs except those that the First Amendment absolutely allows," Savrin said.

But Justice Samuel Alito said that argument could be made "in lots of other contexts where I don't think the distinction could be justified."

"Suppose the question is, whether the town is going to allow anybody to speak in a park, and the town council says, well, you know, we would like to have people be able to speak on subjects that we like, but there are some subjects we really don't like. We don't want people to speak on those. So we have the choice, we allow everybody to speak or we allow nobody to speak," Alito said.

Reed's attorney, David Cortman, made the case that the sign code "discriminates on its face by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they say. Political signs may be 32 square feet, may be unlimited in number, and may be placed in the right-of-way of the entire town for five months before the election; but the church's signs can only be one-fifth of that size, only placed in the dark of night, the night before the church service."

Justice Antonin Scalia did not agree with Savrin's statement that ideological signs are subject to First Amendment protection, while directional signs serve a different purpose.

"I mean, ideological signs, that is just a content category, and there is as much a First Amendment right to give somebody directions as there is to speak about - - about being green or whatever else," Scalia said. "Is there no First Amendment right to give somebody directions?"

Justice Elena Kagan questioned the town's argument that loosening the sign code would create clutter.

"You are essentially saying, yes, we generally dislike clutter, but we're willing to make exceptions for clutter for speech that we think has special First Amendment significance," Kagan said.

After Monday's oral arguments, Reed gave a prepared statement outside the Supreme Court.

"This whole experience has been shocking to me - our signs inviting people to church are very important yet are treated as second-class speech," Reed said. "We aren't asking for special treatment; we just want our town to stop favoring the speech of others over ours."

Reed first sued Gilbert in 2007 after being cited twice for posting his signs too early.

Since then, four courts have ruled in favor of the town, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013. After that ruling, Reed successfully appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court website estimates that the court accepts 70 to 80 cases per session, out of more than 10,000 requests.

A handful of religious rights groups have filed briefs in support of Reed, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which backed Hobby Lobby in another Supreme Court case that struck down the Obama contraceptive mandate last year.

Alliance Defending Freedom is holding a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court after today's oral arguments. Reed is slated to make his only public statement about the case at that time.

The Republic will provide updates throughout the day.

The court is expected to release its opinion in the spring.


Gilbert church argues before (next best thing to) God.

EJ Montini, columnist | 1:34 p.m. MST January 12, 2015

While politicians at the state prattled on about their self-importance after taking their oaths of office today, a tiny Gilbert church had an opportunity to make it's case before (the next best thing to) God.

The U.S. Supreme Court.

Last summer the Good News Presbyterian Church was told that the nation's highest court had agreed to hear its case against the town over the roadside signs posted by church members the day before worship services.

Gilbert has different regulations for directional and political signs. It allows political signs to be a lot larger and to stay up for a lot longer.

The church says this is a violation of its First Amendment right.

The little church, which has a small congregation and rents space for its services, could not afford high-powered attorneys. But, as they say, God provides. The church's case 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."

Last summer I spoke to Alliance attorney Matt Sharp.

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

He added, "To us, this is a case about religious freedom and about free speech. 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 town says it doesn't base its regulations on a sign's content but on its intent.

Gilbert allows temporary directional signs to be erected no earlier than 12 hours before an event. They must be removed one hour after the services end. Those signs must also be smaller than ideological signs and political signs. The ones you and I find so annoying prior to each election. Political signs also can be kept up longer.

Attorney Philip Savrin, who is representing the town, told a reporter that limits on directional signs "directly addresses the source of the evil created by a proliferation of signs — visual blight, safety and deterioration of real estate values."

I'm not sure there a greater blight than rows of signs featuring the mugs of political hacks. And I'm guessing that you can't, either.

But, after making their case Monday in Washington, that decision is now in the hands of the Supreme Court justices.

Or, maybe, that other Supreme justice. From that even higher court.