As debate continues to rage surrounding the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, religious freedom proponents are turning their attention to the next legal battle that could have an impact on local ordinances governing how churches advertise.
The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear Reed v. Gilbert, an appeal by Good News Presbyterian Church, which claims that officials in Gilbert, Arizona, discriminated against the church by forcing the removal of signs informing the public about worship services, Charisma News reported.
Problems between the small church and government officials began in 2005, when the town cited the church for posting event messages too early in the public right of way. While Good News Presbyterian Church responded by reducing the number of signs and the amount of time they were displayed, the debate continued, according to the Arizona Republic.
The church was, once again, found to be out of compliance in 2007, leading its pastor to sue Gilbert — and to a subsequent town code change in 2008 that allowed for larger and unlimited signage. But that did little to temper the debate.
At the center of the legal stalemate is the accusation that the town of Gilbert has restricted church signs, while allowing other messaging to be displayed with fewer restrictions, according to the Associated Press.
“Towns cannot apply stricter rules to church signs when it doesn’t apply them to ideological, political, and other non-commercial signs,” said David Cortman, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal firm representing Good News Presbyterian Church.
Consider that political signs can reportedly be larger than church messages. And while political and ideological signs can stand for months, church signs are only permitted to be up 12 hours before each service or event.
So while the church wants to post signs the day before services, it is reportedly not currently permitted to do so.
But town attorney Michael Hamblin released a statement defending Gilbert and noting that no group is free to advertise without restriction, Cronkite News reported.
“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, adding that the town believes it will prevail at the Supreme Court.
Some critics disagree, though, with a group of law professors filing a friend-of-the-court brief in November in support of Good News Presbyterian Church. Among them, Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who stands in solidarity with the church.
“The [circuit court’s] decision alone to me seemed pretty wrong,” he told the Tucson Sentinel.
So far two courts — a federal court in Arizona and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — have ruled against Good News Presbyterian Church, finding that different treatment is permitted for non-commercial speech, so long as signs aren’t differentiated based on their content.
But now, it appears the Supreme Court will have the final say.