First Amendment Protection for Religious Signage to be Tested

Good News Presbyterian Church

A sign advertising the service hours and location of the Good News Presbyterian Church in Gilbert, AZ. (Alliance Defending Freedom)

A legal spat over temporary signs informing people of upcoming religious services may not seem important to free-speech jurisprudence, but the upcoming case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert is significant and cuts to the heart of First Amendment doctrine.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case on Jan. 12.

Pastor Clyde Reed and Good News Community Church contend that a Gilbert, Ariz. sign ordinance violates core free-speech principles.  Under the ordinance, “qualifying event” signs are restricted far more than political signs, ideological signs, and homeowner association meeting signs.  The town imposed far more restrictive limits on size and the length of time such event signs can be displayed.

Reed and his church argue that the town engages in content discrimination by treating noncommercial signs differently based on content.  The town counters that its ordinance is content-neutral because it lacked a discriminatory motive and is not discriminating on the basis of viewpoint.

Pastor Reed and the church argue Gilbert’s sign ordinance is content-based on its face because of the preference shown to political signage and to issue-related signs.  The town counters with an appeal to pragmatism, writing that “a formulaic application of ‘content’ to sign ordinances would subject virtually all sign ordinances to strict scrutiny, which very few laws survive.”  The town argues that its interests in public safety and aesthetics justify the ordinance.

The federal government has filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case, saying the   the town’s ordinance improperly makes distinctions between different sorts of signs that all have the same impact on safety and aesthetics.

David L. Hudson, Jr., is First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.

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