Supreme Court: Can local rules about signs violate first amendment?

Protestor holding sign

Noah Fairbanks via Flickr

Protestor holding sign "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself"

Guest post by Daniel Bennett

The debate over religious freedom in the United States knows no bounds – not even in the drafting of a municipal signage ordinance.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning a town ordinance regulating signs. Religious freedom advocates see the case as an opportunity to add yet another victory to their list of recent successes.

2013_U.S._Supreme_Court_BuildingReed v. Town of Gilbert centers on Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. At first glance, the case seems mundane. Gilbert categorizes signs directing people to events—including church services—differently than signs with ideological, political, or commercial content.

For example, a political sign cannot exceed 32 square feet and may be left up for a few months. But a sign inviting people to a church event cannot exceed six square feet and may only be displayed for several hours.

So why are religious freedom advocates interested? Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, repeatedly violated the ordinance. Their signs directed people to their building, which they rent from a local school.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian conservative legal group defending Reed, argues treating Good News’ signs different than other signs amounts to content-based discrimination on speech. The courts routinely strike down content-based speech laws.

For its part, the town suggests Reed and ADF have exaggerated the issues in the case, while also claiming the restrictions are content-neutral since they apply to all “temporary directional signs,” regardless of message.

Reed will be the second religious freedom case the Court hears this term, after Holt v. Hobbs (a case asking whether a prisoner has the right to grow a beard for religious reasons). As in HobbsReed is attracting a diverse coalition of supporters including the U.S. government, numerous First Amendment scholars, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. This points to the potential for a big win for Good News Community Church.

This post is a revision of an earlier post from 10.01.2014.

Daniel Bennett (@bennettdaniel), PhD, researches the conservative legal movement. He is a professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University.