The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major victory to a small Arizona church on Thursday, ruling that local officials cannot restrict messages on signage based on "how worthy the government thinks [they are]," according to the conservative legal firm that represented the house of worship.
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As TheBlaze previously reported, Good News Community Church has been embroiled in a battle with officials in Gilbert, Arizona, since 2005, claiming that the government discriminated against the church by forcing the removal of signs informing the public about worship services.
Good News Community Church argued that its signage was treated differently from messages posted by political candidates, as codes allowed for the latter messages to remain up for months; the church was only permitted to post its messages for about 14 hours, before requiring that they be removed.
The town first cited the church in 2005 for posting event messages too early in the public right of way. While Good News Community Church responded by reducing the number of signs and the amount of time that 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.
At the center of the legal stalemate was the nagging accusation that the town of Gilbert had restricted church signs, while allowing other messaging to be displayed with fewer restrictions -- a claim that the Supreme Court was sympathetic toward in issuing Thursday's unanimous Reed v. Town of Gilbert ruling.
The high court ruled that the government can't "play favorites when it comes to free speech," according to a press release from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm that represented the church.
"[Gilbert] singles out specific subject matter for differential treatment, even if it does not target viewpoints within that subject matter," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the decision. "Ideological messages are given more favorable treatment than messages concerning a political candidate, which are themselves given more favorable treatment than messages announcing an assembly of like-minded individuals."
He continued, "That is a paradigmatic example of content-based discrimination."
The Alliance Defending Freedom applauded the decision, calling the win a First Amendment victory for the masses.
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"The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling is a victory for everyone’s freedom of speech," said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel David Cortman. "Speech discrimination is wrong regardless of whether the government intended to violate the First Amendment or not, and it doesn’t matter if the government thinks its discrimination was well-intended."
According to the group, the Supreme Court's ruling provides parameters in which the government cannot decide which speech is deserving of greater protection under the law, essentially ruling that such differentiation is discriminatory in nature.
Political signs were permitted to be up to 32 feet and were allowed to remain on display for months, while church and non-profit signs advertising events were permitted to be six square feet and up for no more than 14 hours, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom.
These rules have now been overturned.
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