Tiny Gilbert Church Wins Supreme Court Victory in Battle of David vs. Goliath

Ending a 10-year legal battle with the Town of Gilbert, Good News Community Church today won a 9-0 victory at the U.S. Supreme Court for free speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court gave churches everywhere a free speech victory today when it ruled that religious signs must be given the same treatment as other messages posted on street corners.

The court unanimously ruled the town of Gilbert, Arizona had discriminated against churches by passing an ordinance barring corner signs advertising services, but allowing other types of signs to be displayed.

The decision overturns a previous ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the most overturned court in America.

“In today’s secular climate, government increasingly views the free speech rights of churches as less valuable than other types of speech,” said Bruce Hausknecht with Focus on the Family. “That attitude – whether intentional or not – carries over into unconstitutional restrictions on speech such as the Town of Gilbert’s sign code in this case. It is gratifying to see the Supreme Court issue a unanimous decision in favor of the church, especially when two lower federal courts got it horribly wrong.”

Gilbert’s lawyer made that very point in oral arguments at the Supreme Court. In a shocking disregard for the First Amendment, he said church speech isn’t as important as the speech of others. The Town of Gilbert got smacked down for that callous disregard of free speech.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (headquartered in Scottsdale) represented Good News Community Church and its 82-year-old pastor, Clyde Reed, in the lawsuit.

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling is a victory for everyone’s freedom of speech,” said ADF attorney David Cortman, who argued the case for the Supreme Court earlier this year. “Speech discrimination is wrong regardless of whether the government intended to violate the First Amendment or not, and it doesn’t matter if the government thinks its discrimination was well-intended. It’s still government playing favorites, and that’s unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling is a victory for everyone’s freedom of speech,” Cortman said. “Speech discrimination is wrong regardless of whether the government intended to violate the First Amendment or not, and it doesn’t matter if the government thinks its discrimination was well-intended.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said that was an impermissible content-based regulation.

“The First Amendment … prohibits enactment of laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech,’’’ Thomas wrote. “Under that clause, a government, including a municipal government vested with state authority has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

In a rare display for fairness, the left-stream media outlet Arizona Central/Arizona Republic turned in the best line of the day on the victory for free speech:

The U.S. Supreme Court preached a bit of gospel — from the Greek word meaning “good news” — for a small Gilbert Presbyterian church on Thursday.

The Blaze reported …

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major victory to a small Arizona church on Thursday, ruling that local officials cannot restrict messages on signage based on “how worthy the government thinks [they are],” according to the conservative legal firm that represented the house of worship.

CitizenLink contributed to the report

Supreme Court Justices Skeptical about Gilbert’s Sign Code

A small church in a Phoenix suburb appeared likely Monday to win its Supreme Court dispute over a local ordinance that puts limits on roadside signs that direct people to Sunday services.

Liberal and conservative justices alike expressed misgivings with the Gilbert, Arizona, sign ordinance because it places more restrictions on the churches’ temporary signs than those erected by political candidates, real estate agents and others.

The Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed sued over limits that Gilbert places on so-called directional signs, like the ones the church places around town to point people to its services in local schools and retirement communities.

The directional signs can be no larger than 6 square feet. They must be placed in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and removed within an hour of its end. Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and can remain in place for several months. Other ideological signs, including a message from a church welcoming people to its services without the pointing the way, can be as large as 20 square feet.

Justice Samuel Alito sarcastically described how the church could erect a larger, temporary sign telling passers-by about an upcoming service. “We can’t tell you where it is because the town won’t let us,” Alito said, to laughter. “But if you drive by here tomorrow morning at a certain time, you’ll see an arrow.”

Philip Savrin, the town’s lawyer, essentially agreed with Alito that the ordinance would allow what the justice described.

Justice Stephen Breyer indicated he didn’t like the arrangement any better than Alito did. “Well, my goodness. I mean…it does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?” Breyer asked Savrin.

Less clear from the argument is whether the justices would use the case to make an important First Amendment ruling on the regulation of speech, or decide more narrowly in a way that affects the particular ordinance and not much else.

Lower federal courts upheld the town’s sign ordinance because the distinction it draws between different kinds of temporary signs is not based on what a sign says.

Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated he might prefer a narrower outcome when he suggested that a broad ruling would lead local governments to ban all signs or lead to a proliferation of messages ranging from “Save your soul” to “Happy Birthday, Uncle Fred.”

The church is joined by religious groups and the Obama administration in urging the Supreme Court to strike down the ordinance.

The church, which serves roughly 30 adults and up to 10 children, argues that the regulation’s significant difference in the size of the signs and how long they can be displayed is essentially regulation based on content, which the Supreme Court only rarely allows in First Amendment cases.

“The town’s code discriminates on its face by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they say,” said David Cortman, the church’s lawyer.

The National League of Cities and other associations of local officials are backing the town and warning that a ruling in favor of the church would make it “nearly impossible” for cities and towns to craft sign regulations that deal with a community’s appearance and safety.

A decision is expected by June in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

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