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Court gives unanimous win to small church, others

WASHINGTON (BP) — For pastor Clyde Reed, a win at the highest court of the land was a significant victory not only for his small church but for many Americans.

[QUOTE@right@180=“This was a huge win for freedom of speech.”— Russell Moore] “I thank God that the Supreme Court affirmed our First Amendment freedoms and sent the message that the church’s speech can’t be targeted for restriction,” Reed said after the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion issued June 18. “More importantly, I am blessed to have been a part of a victory for free speech that will certainly outlast us and that I pray will benefit others for many years.”

The justices unanimously ruled a Gilbert, Ariz., sign code violated the free-speech rights of Good News Community Church, the small church Reed pastors. The decision not only will free Good News to set up its signs without harassment from the local government, but it could provide an important aid to the church planting efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention and other organizations that often use such signs to inform communities of their presence.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court over-ruled a federal appeals court decision, finding the sign ordinance adopted by Gilbert — a Phoenix-area city of about 200,000 — “imposes content-based restrictions on speech” and fails to pass the government test for such a law. That code limited the size of directional signs — like those for church meetings — to six square feet and 12 hours for display while permitting far greater sizes and durations for the exhibition of political, ideological and home owners’ association signs.

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said a sign code with “content-based restrictions” must survive “strict scrutiny,” a standard of judicial review that requires the government to demonstrate it has a “compelling interest” and has narrowly tailored a law to that end for it to be found constitutional. 

Gilbert “cannot do so,” Thomas wrote. “It has offered only two governmental interests in support of the distinctions the Sign Code draws: preserving the Town’s aesthetic appeal and traffic safety. Assuming for the sake of argument that those are compelling governmental interests, the Code’s distinctions fail as hopelessly underinclusive.”

Speaking at a news conference June 18, Reed, 82, said his church “wasn’t asking for special treatment; we just didn’t want to get fined or thrown in jail over an unfair and unjust city law.”

“The government shouldn’t be able to treat our church’s religious speech worse than it treats other speech,” said Reed, a pastor for more than 40 years.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) agreed with Reed and hailed the high court’s decision.

“This was a huge win for freedom of speech,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “Governments can’t discriminate against speech just because it is religious. The Supreme Court did the right thing.”

The ERLC had signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief by the Christian Legal Society that contended the sign ordinance violated the church’s freedom to speak and assemble. “For small congregations, the restrictions on the less expensive and more effective medium of signs do not simply cause inefficiencies or raise costs; they may seriously hamper First Amendment activity,” the brief said.

The Missouri Baptist Convention and its Christian Life Commission also filed a brief in the case in support of the church. The brief — authored by the Southern Baptist, father-son lawyer team of Michael and Jonathan Whitehead — argued the sign code infringed the First Amendment protection of religious freedom, as well as free speech and assembly rights.

Describing it as a “great win” not only for Reed but “for church planters everywhere,” Jonathan Whitehead said in a written statement, “Nine justices concurring in the judgment makes the victory all the sweeter, and the precedent all the stronger.”

In contrast to Gilbert’s restrictions on directional signs for Good News Community Church and others, the city’s code:

— Permitted ideological signs to be 20 square feet in size and be exhibited indefinitely.

— Allowed political signs to be 32 square feet and be displayed 60 days before an election.

— Authorized home owners’ association signs, which can include directions, to be 80 square feet and be posted 30 days before an event.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a federal judge’s opinion in support of Gilbert, ruling the differences in Gilbert’s code are neutral regarding content because “none draws distinctions based on the particular content of the sign.”

Expressing the high court’s disagreement with the Ninth Circuit, Thomas said the different restrictions in the sign code “depend entirely on the communicative content of the sign.”

“Innocent motives [by the government] do not eliminate the danger of censorship presented by a facially content-based statute, as future government officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech,” Thomas wrote. “That is why the First Amendment expressly targets the operation of the laws … rather than merely the motives of those who enacted them.”

David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a written release, “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.”

Cortman argued for Reed before the Supreme Court in January. The case was Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

At last report, Good News Community Church averages between 25 to 30 adults and four to 10 children in weekly worship at a public school.