Little Church Bests Local Bureaucrats at Supreme Court


ReedChurchSign2In a unanimous decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech trumps the whims of local bureaucrats. Reed v. Town of Gilbert also provided a victory for religious expression as the plaintiff represents a small church in the Arizona community.

Clyde Reed is the pastor of Good News Community Church, a small Presbyterian congregation that uses innocuous temporary signs to advertise its weekly service. Since the church doesn’t own a building, it meets in various rented locations around Gilbert, a Phoenix suburb.

Reed ran afoul of ruler-toting compliance officers because the town specifically restricted the size, location, number, and duration of signs promoting “religious events.” Curiously, the Gilbert Sign Code is far more permissive of signs that are deemed ideological, political, or for homeowners’ associations.

With the help of the lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom, Reed sued the Town of Gilbert for discriminating against religious speech. It seems obvious the sign code violated the First Amendment but for some reason the town has been defending this provision in court since 2007.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court found that Gilbert’s Sign Code discriminated against certain content without any legitimate governmental interest. The high court threw out the test used by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to claim that Good News Community Church’s signs expressed a less valuable form of speech than a city councilmember seeking re-election or an HOA promoting a Friday fish fry.

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling is a victory for everyone’s freedom of speech,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued before the court in January. “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 government cannot target one form of speech with severe restrictions while allowing more speech for others in similar circumstances, which is what Gilbert’s ordinance did,” added ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “Furthermore, the courts cannot use a test that allows that discrimination to happen.”

Gilbert’s attorney, Michael Hamblin, released a terse statement that the town will amend their unconstitutional sign code. “Gilbert looks forward to the opportunity to review its own regulations to make necessary changes consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision,” Hamblin said, “and welcomes the opportunity for dialogue concerning the future of signage in the public’s right of way, including state mandated political signage.”

The fight over the sign code isn’t a case of runaway liberal governments trying to snuff out religion. Gilbert was recently ranked the ninth most conservative community in the U.S., has a prominent Catholic presence and a new Mormon temple. But petty rulemakers love to enforce their petty rules, even when they go against community sentiment. Perhaps Gilbert officials can take notes from their neighbor, Mesa, Ariz., which was named the most conservative city in the nation.

There are 18 comments.

  1. Inactive

    Most judges would be red-faced in the extreme if their decision was reversed unanimously by the Supreme Court. I wonder if that is true of 9th circuit judges.

    Amazingly, the two judges who were reversed were Bush appointees while the dissenting judge, with whom the Supreme Court agreed, was an Obama appointee. Go figure.

    • #1
    • June 18, 2015 at 5:16 pm
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  2. Member

    That is what happens when you mess with God.

    • #2
    • June 18, 2015 at 5:16 pm
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  3. Thatcher

    Shockingly, a 9th circuit decision is overturned.

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security 

    • #3
    • June 18, 2015 at 5:39 pm
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  4. Member

    PHCheese:That is what happens when you mess with God.

    Yes, but why so subtle? Couldn’t He throw a bolt every now and then? ;-)

    • #4
    • June 18, 2015 at 5:42 pm
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  5. Member

    Clyde is a minister in our denomination (the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) and a great guy. We prayed for this last week at our annual Synod meeting.

    Us Seceders are quite happy this week. :)

    • #5
    • June 18, 2015 at 5:55 pm
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  6. Thatcher

    Thanks for sharing this, Jon.

    • #6
    • June 18, 2015 at 6:58 pm
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  7. Inactive

    Watch the town respond by severely limiting all signage now. A wounded bureaucrat is a wonder to behold.

    • #7
    • June 18, 2015 at 6:59 pm
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  8. Member

    Next week, put out a humongous f***ing sign.

    • #8
    • June 18, 2015 at 8:19 pm
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  9. Member

    God bless the Alliance Defending Freedom.

    And thanks for posting this, Jon.

    • #9
    • June 18, 2015 at 8:53 pm
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  10. Member

    I’m sure the taxpayers of Gilbert appreciate the city pursuing this to the Supreme Court. Who’s paying the city’s legal bills?

    • #10
    • June 18, 2015 at 9:02 pm
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  11. Member

    Good post.

    On a related note: Can we get Congress to create a new district court to remove the non-coastal states from the 9th? Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Alaska have very little in common with California. Let those liberal West coast states (and Hawaii) be on their own.

    • #11
    • June 18, 2015 at 9:05 pm
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  12. Member

    I’m starting to like Newt Gingrich’s idea of hauling judges before Congress for questioning (at least, I think that was his idea, I may not be remembering correctly). If the lower courts are going to be pulling this crap than perhaps we should begin talking about revising the federal RFRA law.

    • #12
    • June 19, 2015 at 12:08 am
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  13. Member

    I hope people will read the Court’s opinion now

    to get a primer on the law of strict scrutiny, rational basis, and government discrimination. Because I have a strong suspicion that in a few weeks, those Constitutional principles are going to be a lot more unpopular around here than they are today.

    • #13
    • June 19, 2015 at 11:01 am
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  14. Member

    Shorter Kagan/Ginsberg: “We agree, but we want to leave the door open to restricting speech when we want to.”

    • #14
    • June 19, 2015 at 11:38 am
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  15. Member

    Eustace C. Scrubb:I’m sure the taxpayers of Gilbert appreciate the city pursuing this to the Supreme Court. Who’s paying the city’s legal bills?

    I don’t know if it is imprecise writing, but is also appears that the town of Gilbert employs an entire department dedicated to the Sign Code lead by a “Sign Code compliance manager.”

    • #15
    • June 19, 2015 at 11:42 am
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  16. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:But petty rulemakers love to enforce their petty rules, even when they go against community sentiment.

    Bingo. This supports my suspicion that the Nazi Party began as a Homeowner’s Association that got out of hand.

    • #16
    • June 19, 2015 at 12:28 pm
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  17. Member

    Douglas: Douglas Watch the town respond by severely limiting all signage now. A wounded bureaucrat is a wonder to behold.

    You’re such a cynic, Douglas. I appreciate it, and I thank you sincerely for the tutoring.

    • #17
    • June 20, 2015 at 3:09 pm
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  18. Member

    There is no passion like that of a functionary for his function.

    • #18
    • June 20, 2015 at 6:28 pm
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