U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS rules for Arizona church in First Amendment challenge to sign ordinance

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Church sign by parking lot

Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious legal organization which represented Reed and the church.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for an Arizona pastor and his church in a challenge to an ordinance that imposed more stringent restrictions on temporary signs directing the public to its services than on other signs.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion (PDF) for the court finding a First Amendment violation.

The sign ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona, imposed more restrictions on “temporary directional signs” directing the public to meetings of churches and other nonprofit groups. The Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, challenged the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment.

Thomas wrote that the ordinance’s differing treatment of signs based on the type of information they convey is a content-based restriction of speech that does not survive strict scrutiny.

“A regulation that targets a sign because it conveys an idea about a specific event is no less content based than a regulation that targets a sign because it conveys some other idea,” Thomas wrote.

In a concurrence, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. stressed that several types of sign rules could be enacted that are not content based. He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Elena Kagan concurred in the judgment, in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kagan said Thomas’ strict-scrutiny analysis placed many sign ordinances in jeopardy, including the federal highway beautification law that bars many signs along interstate highways, but allows signs for scenic and historical attractions.

The court didn’t need to decide the level of scrutiny to be applied, Kagan said, because Gilbert’s ordinance “does not pass strict scrutiny, or intermediate scrutiny, or even the laugh test.”

The case is Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Related articles:

ABA Journal: “Does the First Amendment allow church to violate town’s sign code? SCOTUS to decide”

ABAJournal.com: “Church’s sign-restriction challenge will be heard by SCOTUS”

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