Supreme Court: Can local rules about signs violate first amendment?

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Protestor holding sign

Noah Fairbanks via Flickr

Protestor holding sign "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself"

Guest post by Daniel Bennett

The debate over religious freedom in the United States knows no bounds – not even in the drafting of a municipal signage ordinance.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning a town ordinance regulating signs. Religious freedom advocates see the case as an opportunity to add yet another victory to their list of recent successes.

2013_U.S._Supreme_Court_BuildingReed v. Town of Gilbert centers on Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. At first glance, the case seems mundane. Gilbert categorizes signs directing people to events—including church services—differently than signs with ideological, political, or commercial content.

For example, a political sign cannot exceed 32 square feet and may be left up for a few months. But a sign inviting people to a church event cannot exceed six square feet and may only be displayed for several hours.

So why are religious freedom advocates interested? Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, repeatedly violated the ordinance. Their signs directed people to their building, which they rent from a local school.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian conservative legal group defending Reed, argues treating Good News’ signs different than other signs amounts to content-based discrimination on speech. The courts routinely strike down content-based speech laws.

For its part, the town suggests Reed and ADF have exaggerated the issues in the case, while also claiming the restrictions are content-neutral since they apply to all “temporary directional signs,” regardless of message.

Reed will be the second religious freedom case the Court hears this term, after Holt v. Hobbs (a case asking whether a prisoner has the right to grow a beard for religious reasons). As in HobbsReed is attracting a diverse coalition of supporters including the U.S. government, numerous First Amendment scholars, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. This points to the potential for a big win for Good News Community Church.

This post is a revision of an earlier post from 10.01.2014.

Daniel Bennett (@bennettdaniel), PhD, researches the conservative legal movement. He is a professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University.

  • Karla

    People can believe whatever they want but that doesn’t make it right!
    In John 10:30 Jesus says…I and the Father are one yet some people
    still try to deny the Godhead/Trinity. In Revelation 3 Jesus says I Am
    the First and the Last again showing He wasn’t created! The Bible also
    says in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and
    the Word was God then the Word became flesh. Jesus is the Word!
    So if in the beginning was the Word/Jesus Christ and the Word was
    God then the Word/Jesus became flesh that means Jesus was not created!
    Jesus is part of the Godhead/Trinity/is eternal with the Father/The Holy Spirit.

  • Karla

    Correction in my comment above. It’s not Revelation 3 where Jesus says
    that I Am the First and the Last but in Revelation 1:17-18.

  • If I may note a non-religious facet of this story:

    “For example, a political sign cannot exceed 32 square feet and may be left up for a few months. But a sign inviting people to a church event cannot exceed six square feet and may only be displayed for several hours.”

    Interesting contrast here. I note that it appears to be standard operating procedure for politicians to grant themselves a different set of rules from everyone else. Here we have an example of laws concerning political-campaign signs which are vastly more permissive than those for other types of events or uses. They’ve also exempted themselves from, e.g. the Do Not Call registry; political campaigns and pollsters are free to ignore it and call anyone they want, any time they want ( Others groups have to obey far more stringent rules.

  • Re: “In John 10:30 Jesus says…I and the Father are one yet some people still try to deny the Godhead/Trinity.”

    I’m not sure why this point is relevant to the story. But I will point out the Trinity is not the scriptural slam-dunk you seem to think it is. Just 3 chapters later in the very same gospel, Jesus also said, “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28; see He also said that “only the Father knows” when “the End” will come (Mt 24:36 & Mk 13:32; see

    How can Jesus be an equal part of a united Godhead if he isn’t actually equal to another part of it, or if he’s unaware of something the other part of it knows?

    I’m sure you’ll be able to yank some rationale out of thin air to explain away these incongruities, but even if you do, it won’t mean they’re gone. It will just mean you’ve chosen to block them out of your mind.

  • Larry

    If “Alliance Defending Freedom” are the people defending the church, then the suit is almost certainly based on distorting facts and making nonsense allegations.

    The group is notorious for claiming that Christians are exempt from complying with laws of general application or showing consideration to any other human beings. Their whole purpose appears to be frivolous, bad faith lawsuits and attacks on notions of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms.

  • Karla

    PsiCop-Thanks for the feedback. I was making the point that many today
    believe many things that aren’t true.While on earth Jesus was subjected
    to will of Trinity yet had the fullness of God upon Him to fulfill all prophecy
    and perform miracles. We in our limited minds can’t comprehend God but
    He/God/Jesus are very real. Jesus was fully man yet also had the fullness
    of God upon Him. Read Romans 1:18-32/Psalm 14;1 as well. God bless.

  • Re: “We in our limited minds can’t comprehend God but He/God/Jesus are very real.”

    If we can’t comprehend God, then how are we to know s/he/it is “real”? Just wondering how that works.

  • Karla

    PSiCop-The Word of God/the Bible,creation plus our conscience
    and conscience means with knowledge. Read Romans 1:18-32.
    Creation is proof of God because we see the design and also He
    gave us our conscience to know what is right and wrong and we
    have the Bible/Word of God. Jesus said the Father was greater
    while He was on Earth cause He was subjected to the will of the
    Godhead/Trinity but now that Jesus has risen from the dead He
    is back in heaven/co-eternal with God the Father/the Holy Spirit.
    Read the Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and you can also read
    the book Jesus among other gods by Ravi Zacharias. God bless.

  • @Karla (

    Re: “Read Romans 1:18-32.”

    Why are you recommending a Bible passage to me? Do you seriously think I’ve never read it? I have. In fact, I’ve read it in several languages. I’ve read the New Testament, including the epistle to the Romans, in its original Greek. Can you say the same? If not, who are you to presume I can’t possibly have read your Bible?

    Re: “Read the Case for Christ by Lee Strobel …”

    I have. It’s garden-variety Christian apologetics spewed by someone who misrepresents himself (he claims to have been an atheist, however, nothing in his book betrays any hint that he ever actually had been one).

    Go ahead, try something else … but please, don’t make the mistake of underestimating my knowledge of your religion. It’s insulting to have to fend off the ridiculous notion that an educated American can’t possibly have ever read the Bible.

    If you have objective, verifiable evidence for anything you claim, produce it. Giving me anything else … including sending me off to read some book or other which I’ve probably already read (yes!) and found wanting, which itself is not based on any objective, verifiable evidence … isn’t going to cut it. Objective, verifiable evidence only, please. Thank you.