Supreme Court gives good news to 'Good News Community Church'

A ten year court battle involving signage, freedom of speech, and the equal protection clause ended yesterday in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
A news assistant runs copies of court rulings to his fellow reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 18, 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a town in Arizona violated a local church's free speech rights by preventing it from posting signs notifying the public of its worship services. The court, on a unanimous 9-0 vote, ruled in favor of Good News Community Church, which objected to its treatment by town officials in Gilbert, Arizona.

A court battle that began in 2005 was resolved yesterday in a unanimous ruling in favor of the petitioners, Good News Community Church of Gilbert, Arizona. The Supreme Court heard the case this past January with Justice Clarence Thomas authoring the opinion and Justice Samuel Alito filing a concurring opinion.

The Supreme Court sought to find whether the town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance, which restricted the size, number, duration, and location of “temporary directional” signage violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“[T]he Church’s signs inviting people to attend its worship services are treated differently from signs conveying other types of ideas,” wrote Justice Thomas in the Court’s opinion, concluding that laws that make restrictions on speech based on content are presumptively unconstitutional. While all the judges agreed on the overall ruling, they were split 6-3 on the rationale.

The case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., holds the name of Reverend Clyde Reed, the pastor of the local church. In 2005, the pastor rented space in a local elementary school and placed about 17 signs around the neighborhood announcing the time and place of the worship services.

The church was subsequently notified by the town that it had violated the town’s ordinances for signage. The ordinance holds 23 categories of signs exempt from the ordinance, allowing them to be displayed without a permit. Rev. Reed argued that the signage category “Ideological Signs,” which the ordinance defined as signs “communicating a message or ideas,” and had no time or placement restrictions, applied to the signs advertising the location of his church’s worship services.

In response to being told the signs for Good News Church violated the local ordinance, Reed filed a lawsuit, claiming that the sign code was a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The case was initially filed in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona and the court denied Reed’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The court said that the church signs were “content neutral” and that the ordinances restrictions thereby applied. The 9th Circuit Appellate Court affirmed the ruling of the district court.

Thirteen amici curiae briefs were filed in support of Reed, including by the American Center for Law and Justice, the Pacific Legal Foundation, the State of West Virginia, and numerous religious-based organizations.

The Supreme Court ruling disagreed with the appellate and district courts' rulings, finding that “an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content-based law into one that is content neutral.” The ruling maintained that “because the Town’s Sign Code imposes content-based restrictions on speech, those provisions can stand only if they survive strict scrutiny.”

But can effective sign laws now exist?

The ruling addressed this potential concern as well noting, “This decision will not prevent governments from enacting effective sign laws ... the Town may be able to forbid postings on public property, so long as it does so in an evenhanded, content-neutral manner.”

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