The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case involving a Gilbert ordinance regulating the size of temporary signs on church property.
The court announced on July 1 it will review Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which challenges an ordinance that limited the size and number of signs on a church’s property, as well as how long they can stand. The ordinance, which was amended by the Gilbert Town Council in 2011, limited the size of the signs to 6 feet and the display time to 14 hours. Political signs, in comparison, could be as large as 32 feet and stay in place through election season.
Town of Gilbert Attorney Michael Hamblin said in a statement the sign code offered nonprofit groups like churches and charities to place temporary signs for event purposes without obtaining a sign permit before, during and after the event. He added the amended version of the ordinance is not part of the suit.
A suit against the ordinance was brought by Good News Community Church Pastor Clyde Reed in 2007. Reed, whose church conducts service at Sunrise Senior Living in Gilbert, deferred comments on the suit to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which offered financial and legal backing for the case.
ADF attorney Matt Sharp said the organization’s issue with the ordinance centers on the size disparity between the different signs.
“It really deals with a freedom of speech issue,” he said.
Hamblin, though, said the ADF’s motivations are focused less on freedom of speech than on the rights of religious organizations.
“The Alliance Defending Freedom wants religious groups to be allowed to post free, permanent advertisements throughout an entire city area without any regulation or restriction,” he said.
Four courts have disagreed with ADF’s assessment thus far. The most recent decision came in February 2013 from the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed a federal court’s decision to uphold the legitimacy of the ordinance. In its ruling, the court of appeals stated the ordinance was constitutional, as “the different treatment of types of noncommercial temporary signs was not content-based as that term was defined in Reed, and the restrictions were tailored to serve significant governmental interests.”
Hamblin cited the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruling and the three other courts that rejected the ADF’s arguments as evidence for his expected rejection of the arguments by the Supreme Court. Sharp, however, said having the Supreme Court pick up the case in the first place has made ADF cautiously optimistic about the chances this case could become a precedent for rulings across the country.
The odds of the court accepting a case offer some proof to Sharp’s optimism. According to the Supreme Court website, the court grants and hears oral arguments for between 75 and 80 cases every year, but it receives more than 10,000 requests per year.
Sharp admitted it’s difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on any case — even a decision that favors the ADF could remain limited to Gilbert regulations.
The justices are expected to hear arguments this fall.
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