By Cara L. Gallagher
Question: Can a town impose more regulations on religious signs posted on public streets than political, ideological, or property signs?
10-cent explanation: The town of Gilbert, Arizona has municipal codes about when, where, and for how long signs can be displayed in town. If you’re a candidate running for elected office, your campaign sign can remain in public for an unlimited amount of time. If the town posts signs reminding citizens what day to vote, they can be posted four and a half months prior to the date and up to 15 days after. Got a sign advertising an HOA meeting? Those can stay out 30 days before the meeting and must be taken down 48 hours after. But if the pastor of a local church in Gilbert, adorably called the Good News Community Church, wants to put signs out to remind people of upcoming services, he has only 12 hours before the event to display it and must take it down within an hour after the event or risk penalties. There are also regulations on the sizes of the signs. Good News’ signs can’t be more than six square feet whereas HOA signs can be 80 square feet, political signs 32 square feet, and ideological signs 20 square feet. These regulations also apply to signs for nonprofit, charitable, and educational organizations.
The question the Court will consider on Monday, January 12th, 2015 is whether or not Gilbert’s sign codes violate the church’s 1st Amendment rights protecting free speech. This case brings to mind a recent decision about buffer zones and the free speech rights of protestors outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts (McCullen v. Coakley). Massachusetts’ law banning protestors from crossing the 35-foot buffer zone was struck down and the majority (8-1) ruled, “Government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” In Reed, as in McCullen, the Court is asked to decide whether laws restricting speech are permissible because they are content-neutral. In order to determine what kind of sign and thus the length of time it can be posted, a Gilbert official must read the content, interpret the message, and make the call. The Court almost never supports empowering agents of government with the right to interpret and make such decisions. No doubt attorneys for Good News will argue Gilbert’s restrictions on religious signs is akin to a government entity giving preferential treatment to political and secular groups over religious groups.
Noisy street signs – political, ideological, religious, commercial, or HOA – can be a nuisance, especially during election cycles. Gilbert’s sign restrictions are intended to mitigate the proliferation of such distractions. Less distracted drivers mean fewer accidents and a safer community. They’ll likely argue in Court that greater time allowances and bigger signs for political and noncommercial signs are because those messages serve a wider audience of voting and home owning citizens, unlike the Church’s intended audience, which is smaller, encompassing its parishioners and perhaps the religiously unaffiliated. Gilbert has support having won in the district court and the 9th Circuit affirmed.
An hour hardly seems enough time for a pastor of a small church to finish his sermon, say goodbye to his flock, and make it out there in time to grab the signs before receiving a ticket from Gilbert police for violating the sign code. Frankly, Gilbert’s inconsistent sign regulations make a reversal of the lower court decisions and win seem like a lock for the church. My guess is that Good News will receive very good news in the Court’s decision this spring. [Zing!]