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US Supreme Court to hear Gilbert church's signage case

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PHOENIX — In a case with nationwide implications, attorneys for a tiny Gilbert congregation want the U.S. Supreme Court to void local regulations limiting the size and placement of signs to its services.

The Good News Community Church contends city regulations unfairly discriminate against it and similar congregations that put up signs directing people to its weekly services.

Its attorneys, from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian public interest law firm, want the high court to rule the church is entitled to the same large signs and long-term placement as those politicians put up seeking votes.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear arguments, perhaps as early as January, on whether the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was correct last year in upholding the Gilbert regulations.

The fight stems from the fact that the church, like many small congregations, has no building of its own.

Over the years, the group — its lawyers say between 25 and 30 adults and up to 10 children per week — has instead conducted services in a variety of rented spaces, including public schools. It currently meets in a senior living center.

The church puts up signs directing would-be worshippers to the site.

But Gilbert regulations say the signs cannot be put in place earlier than 12 hours before the event and must be removed one hour after the services end. And the rules limit the signs to no more than 6 square feet.

By contrast, attorney David Cortman said political signs can be 32 square feet and remain in place for months. And he said even what the town calls “ideological signs” can be permanent and up to 20 square feet.

Cortman said communities can enact sign regulations — but with limits.

“Whatever treatment the town decides to give other temporary signs, that’s what the church requests,” he said. “So, for example, if they say temporary signs can be up 30 days for each event, or whatever have you, as long as it’s a neutral regulation that applies across the board, that’s all that the church is asking.”

Cortman complained a sign promoting an upcoming event at a homeowners association can be displayed for more than a month.

And what makes it worse, he said, is that it becomes a restriction based solely on the content of the message.

“The only way for an enforcement official to determine whether a sign violates the code for being displayed too long is to determine what it says,” the legal argument contends.

In its ruling last year however, the majority of the 9th Circuit said there was no discrimination because the ordinance applies to all similar types of “temporary directional signs,” regardless of the nature of the event.

But Cortman wants the high court to conclude that even making separate classifications for political versus directional signs is improper, especially when the claim is the regulations are designed for the interests of safety and aesthetics.

“Gilbert grants highly favorable treatment to temporary political signs despite the fact that they post the greatest threat to its interests because of their far greater number,” he argued. And Cortman said the 9th Circuit got it wrong in concluding political signs deserve more First Amendment protection than those erected by the church.

“Simply put, the 9th Circuit deemed Good News’ church invitation signs ‘low-value’ speech, and political and ideological signs ‘high-value’ speech,” he said.

But by definition, Cortman said, the court is making judgments concerning the value of protected speech which “is forbidden under the First Amendment.” And Cortman said that, as private religious speech, the signs are fully protected under the Constitution.

The town is due to file its own arguments with the high court on Nov. 14.

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