Pastor Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church, center, his wife Ann, and Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defending Freedom, back left, on the steps of the Supreme Court after their case had been argued to the Supreme Court justices. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Supreme Court weighs a church's right to advertise services

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Supreme Court on Monday (Jan. 12) considered a tiny church's curbside sign in a case that could raise the bar on government regulation of speech, and make it easier for houses of worship to advertise their services.

Pastor Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church, center, his wife Ann, and Kevin Theriot with Alliance Defending Freedom Vice President of the Center for Religious Liberty, back left, on the steps of the Supreme Court after their case had been argued to the Supreme Court justices. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Pastor Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church, center, his wife Ann, and Kevin Theriot, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, back left, on the steps of the Supreme Court after their case had been argued to the Supreme Court justices. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, the advocacy group that represents Pastor Clyde Reed and his Good News Community Church, bills the case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, as a religious rights case. But their attorney mostly argued it on free speech grounds.

“The town code discriminates on its face by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they said,” attorney David A. Cortman told the justices. “The treatment we’re seeking is merely equal treatment under the First Amendment."

The town of Gilbert, Ariz., outside Phoenix, allows political signs to be much larger and permits them to stay up much longer, Cortman said.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Cortman's case did not rely on the religious nature of the plaintiff.

“Your argument does not turn on the fact that it’s a church’s sign, does it?” asked Roberts. “Your argument would be the same if this is a temporary sign about where the soccer game was going to be?”

“That’s right,” Cortman answered.

With about 30 congregants, Good News Community Church has no permanent home. Members planted so-called temporary directional signs -- the kind intended to guide drivers to a concert or school picnic -- to help people find the location where it would offer services.

The congregation brought suit against the town seven years ago after receiving multiple citations for failing to take its signs down within an hour, as town rules require. But the church noted that the same rules didn't apply to political signs, or homebuilders who erected signs to entice people to look at their new houses.

“This is a speech case, not a religious rights case,” said Ira Lupu, a law professor emeritus at George Washington University, who has followed the case. “The issues would be the same if the plaintiff were the operator of a weekly meeting by a secular nonprofit group to discuss books or social problems.”

Gilbert officials have repeatedly prevailed in the lower courts by invoking their rights to regulate so-called temporary directional signage. Towns and cities enforce such regulations all over the country -- restricting how big these signs can be, where they can be placed, and when they must be uprooted.

Philip W. Slavin, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the town of Gilbert in Reed V. Gilbert on Monday (January 12, 2015). Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Philip W. Slavin, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the town of Gilbert, Ariz., in Reed v. Gilbert on Monday (January 12, 2015). Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Philip W. Savrin, who argued Monday for the town, said municipalities have a right to control litter and clutter on their roadsides, and said the rules on temporary directional signs apply equally to church events, barbecues and soccer games.

"It is not something that is based on either the message that is being conveyed or the viewpoint," he said after the justices heard the case. "It has to do with the function of the sign, which is to guide travelers on their route to their destination."

But several justices had a hard time with that argument, questioning whether a church's temporary sign was just about direction, or could relay messages that might put it into a different category: a sign expressing an ideology or belief, for example, that would receive more favorable treatment under municipal sign laws.

Justice Samuel Alito drew laughter from the courtroom when he suggested that Gilbert's sign ordinances created artificial categories, in which a directional sign could only be about direction, or arrows pointing the way.

"So they could put up a quote-unquote ideological sign that says, 'Come to our service on Sunday morning,' but no arrow, and then they put up another sign that says, 'this is the arrow?'" Alito asked of Savrin.

If the sign gives directions, Savrin responded, then it has to follow the rules on directional signs. "The sign could say, your honor, where it is taking place, but if it is intending to guide travelers to that location, then it would need to comply with -- with the provisions."

After the arguments, Reed, 82, spoke on the steps of the Supreme Court in a heavy rain, saying that he never imagined that his little church would wage a seven-year legal battle that would wind up at the highest court in the land.

"Our town treats church signs differently than other types of signs," Reed said. "Our signs inviting people to church are very important, yet are considered second-class speech."

The justices are expected to issue their decision next spring.

KRE/AMB END MARKOE

Comments

  1. Churches need to do a better job of teaching the people that Jesus
    was not created. While on earth Jesus said the Father was greater
    only because He was submitted to the will of the Godhead/Trinity
    but now that Jesus is back in heaven He is eternal with the Father
    and the Holy Spirit/Godhead/the Trinity. In the beginning was the
    Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God then the
    Word/Jesus became flesh and dwealt among us. Jesus is the Word
    made flesh and the Word of God became a man so He/Jesus then
    dwealt among us and the Bible says the Word was there from the
    start/in the beginning so that means He/Jesus Christ wasn’t created!
    The Holy Word of God/the Holy Bible says In John 10:30 that Jesus
    said I and the Father are one! In Revelation 1:17-18 Jesus also says
    I Am the First and the Last so all of these verses show us that Jesus
    was not created/is part of the Godhead/Trinity. On earth Jesus had
    to submit to the will of the Godhead yet He had all of the fullness of
    God upon Him to fulfill prophecy/do miracles. Jesus was not created
    and He/Jesus is also God/co-eternal as part of the Godhead/Trinity.
    Jesus said I Am the First so if He was the First He was not created!

    Churches also need to do a better job of confronting all sin not just
    gay marriage and/or abortion. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists many sins
    right along with homosexuality and two of those sins are drunkards
    and coveters/the greedy yet getting drunk and greed/coveting get
    swpet under the rug today just like being mean/sharp tongues and
    gossiping,jealousy,taking the Lords name in vain and also gambling.
    Bible says that sex is for marriage yet most still have premarital sex.
    Bible says Repent/believe Gospel to be saved. We all must Repent!

  2. A directional sign to a church should not be treated as a campaign sign.

    Campaign signs sell real products – real people running for office.
    The church has no product, the individuals in question: god and Jesus never show and both have been dead for thousands of years.

  3. Wait! They’re going to Court? But this is a law legally passed by the town council. That shouldn’t be subject to the decision of some unelected, librul, black robed fascist, substituting his own judgment for a legally passed law. The people, through their representatives, have spoken.

    I guess it is always a matter of whose ox is getting gored.

  4. Churches may, indeed, have nothing to sell, but they certainly have millions of customers. Please explain.

  5. wim,

    “Churches may, indeed, have nothing to sell, but they certainly have millions of customers. Please explain.”

    Drug pushers have millions of customers too.
    Honesty is hard. Pretending there is no problem is easy.

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