The Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Gilbert in federal court on Thursday, alleging the town is discriminating against a church wanting to post signs for prospective parishioners.
Town officials, though, say the claims are “outright lies,” and argue that churches have more rights to posting signs than area businesses, which post the vast majority of signs along town roads.
The Alliance Defense Fund, known for the national lawsuits it files in support of religious organizations, filed the complaint in the name of Good News Presbyterian Church, 4333 S. De Anza Blvd.
The church had sought to post signs the evening prior to a morning service, instead of earlier the same morning.
“The problem with the ordinance is it treats churches differently and worse than other people permitted to put up signs — political signs, ideological signs,” said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for the defense fund.
“It targets religious speech for more restrictive rules than it does other signs,” Tedesco said.
Town code allows churches to post as many as four signs, as large as 6 square feet, outside of the church property to lead prospective attendees to services.
The church service signs can be posted two hours before a service, and then for an hour afterward.
The code allows businesses only one sign as large as six square feet outside of their business to draw in customers. Those can be displayed only during business hours, not before or afterward.
But the group points to the fact that ideological signs, which allow residents to express themselves, are allowed 20 square feet in size, and have no limitations on how many hours a day they can be posted.
In addition, the town allows political signs during campaign seasons to be as large as 32 square feet, and has no limit as to how many signs candidates can post throughout the town during an election.
Town spokesman Greg Svelund said the accusations were false, since churches are allowed more signs than businesses, and elections are an exception.
“The justification in the past has been that the political signs are out there to get people interested in voting and participating in democracy,” Svelund said. “I don’t know a more compelling reason to use a sign than to get people to participate in democracy.”