Supreme Court Rules for Small Church in Signage Dispute with Gilbert, Arizona

LBN’s Bob Donley reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a church in a dispute about a municipal ordinance and a sign. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court struck down an Arizona town’s ordinance that treated a church’s signs about its worship services differently than others, such as political advertisements.

The Good News Community Church wanted to place signs along the road directing people to its services. The town had an ordinance regulating the size and duration of the signs. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the church.

The Court noted that the Gilbert ordinance imposed more stringent restrictions on signs directing people to a public meeting of a nonprofit group than it did on other signs, such as those by real estate agents or politicians. The Court held that “these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.”

The lawyers for the church had argued that the ordinance required church signs to be half the size of others and that the church’s signs could only be displayed for a maximum of twelve hours. Other signs could be seen for months.

The Court did split 6-3 on the reason for holding the ordinance unconstitutional. The majority (opinion by Justice Thomas) held that the ordinance amounted to a restriction on free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Three concurring justices suggested that there should be a universal description for all signs.

The victory was sweet for the church, which began posting signs the day after the Court’s ruling. But there was some feeling that the ruling could be troublesome for cities seeking to regulate signs, as Justice Kagan said in her concurrence.

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