In 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.