- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2015

One picture — of an Arizona church’s worship service sign — may have been worth a thousand words at the Supreme Court on Monday.

“Well, my goodness. … It does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?” Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer said after several justices began discussing the Good News Community Church’s sign announcing it would hold 9 a.m. services in an elementary school.

The small church puts up temporary welcome signs near roads and sidewalks, and typically includes an arrow to point people to the school or other locations where it holds its services.

The arrow, however, makes the signs “directional” — and barred by strict rules in the town of Gilbert, Arizona, which has been in an eight-year legal battle with pastor Clyde Reed, who heads the Good News church.

In Monday’s oral arguments, the church’s attorney David Cortman said the town’s rules on temporary, noncommercial public signs discriminate against the Good News church’s signs.

“Political signs can be 32 square feet, may be unlimited in number and may be placed in the right of way of the entire town for five months before the election,” said Mr. Cortman, who is part of Alliance Defending Freedom. “Ideological” signs are also given generous treatment, he said.

But the church’s signs, which fell under a stricter category because of the arrow, can be only “one-fifth of that size,” must be placed no more than 12 hours before an event — which means “in the dark of night” — and must be removed an hour after the service ends, Mr. Cortman said.

Even “other signs with directional content” — such as signs for home sales events — “are allowed up for an entire weekend,” said Mr. Cortman, who asked the high court for relief from the town’s “marginalizing” rules for the Good News church.

Speaking on behalf of Gilbert officials and supported by the National League of Cities, Georgia lawyer Philip W. Savrin urged the justices not to rule in a way that forces towns and cities to create “one-size-fits-all” rules for signs.

Without the power to regulate such things as the number, size or duration of signs, local lawmakers could “be inclined to ban all signs except those that the First Amendment absolutely allows,” Mr. Savrin said.

But when the justices inquired about the arrow on the Good News sign, their scenarios evoked laughter.

So a church could put up an “ideological” sign that says, “Come to our service on Sunday morning,” but has no arrow. Then they put up another sign that says “this is the arrow,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“Or maybe they put up on the first sign, ‘Come to our service on Sunday morning; we can’t tell you now where it will be because the town won’t let us, but if you come — if you drive by here tomorrow morning at a certain time, you will see an arrow.”

Justice Breyer offered his own scenario about a big church invitational sign that added directions such as “three blocks right and two blocks left” — and was assured that such a sign would change from an “ideological” one into the more restricted “directional” one. That prompted his “my goodness” remark.

Mr. Savrin defended the town’s law, saying that if, under the court’s hypothetical, there were only one sign, then perhaps the law “seems rather silly.” But what about having “a whole bunch of these signs over a long distance,” Mr. Savrin said, noting that Good News posts about 15 signs for each service.

“I never dreamed my small church signs would be a topic for the Supreme Court,” Mr. Reed, 82, told reporters after the arguments.

But in light of criminal fines, jail time and watching other signs stand for months at a time, Mr. Reed said, they pressed forward.

“We aren’t asking for special treatment; we just want our town to stop favoring the speech of others over ours,” he said. “I pray that the Supreme Court will affirm our First Amendment freedoms and uphold our church’s and others’ free speech rights.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Liberty Counsel and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, Christian Legal Society, Family Research Council, Pacific Legal Foundation and General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists were among those who filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Good News church.

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