AZ Church Defeats Sign Limits in Supreme Court

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A Christian church persuaded the Supreme Court on Thursday to strike down advertising limitations in a Phoenix suburb.
     Citing the Bible’s call to “make disciples of all nations,” the Good News Community Church displays signs that announce its services in Gilbert, Ariz.
     The town officer charged with enforcing the local sign code eventually issued Good News two citations, one for temporary directional signs that exceeded the ordinance’s time limits, and the other for the same problem as well as for not including an event date.
     Though Gilbert’s law prohibits the display of outdoor signs anywhere within the town without a permit, it exempts 23 categories of signs from that requirement, covering “everything from bazaar signs to flying banners,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court Thursday.
     Good News, which has just a few dozen members, and its pastor, Clyde Reed, filed suit in 2008, but U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ultimately granted the town summary judgment.
     The U.S. Supreme Court took up the church’s case last year after the 9th Circuit affirmed that decision.
     In a mostly unanimous reversal Thursday, the justices faulted Gilbert’s law for imposing unfair restrictions on so-called directional signs that direct the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group.
     “We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny,” Thomas wrote.
     The ruling eviscerates various explanations the town offered to portray its sign law as content neutral.
     “Innocent motives 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 – i.e., the ‘abridg[ement] of speech’ – rather than merely the motives of those who enacted them.”
     In this case Gilbert’s sign code “singles out specific subject matter for differential treatment, even if it does not target viewpoints within that subject matter,” the decision states.
     “Ideological messages are given more favorable treatment than messages concerning a political candidate, which are themselves given more favorable treatment than messages announcing an assembly of likeminded individuals,” Thomas added. “That is a paradigmatic example of content-based discrimination.”
     The majority goes on to fault Gilbert for not showing “that limiting temporary directional signs is necessary to eliminate threats to traffic safety, but that limiting other types of signs is not.”
     Gilbert “has offered no reason to believe that directional signs pose a greater threat to safety than do ideological or political signs,” Thomas wrote. “If anything, a sharply worded ideological sign seems more likely to distract a driver than a sign directing the public to a nearby church meeting.”
     Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sonio Sotomayor joined a concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that suggests some rules that would not be content based.
     Justice Stephen Breyer joined in a separate opinion by Justice Elena Kagan concurring in the judgment, and he wrote separately to concur in the judgment.
     Jistice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in Kagan’s opinion as well.

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