Good News Community Church near Gilbert, Arizona got some decidedly bad news from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday. A town ordinance limiting size, location and duration of temporary signs did not violate the church’s constitutional free speech rights and doesn’t favor other groups at the church’s expense, the court held in a 2-1 decision.
The church, in its second legal challenge in four years, lost its claim that the sign law unconstitutionally favored some noncommercial speech over other noncommercial speech, in particular by allowing political signs without permits.
“Clothed in the garb of equal protection the argument still is not persuasive,” wrote Judge Consuelo Callahan, joined by visiting Judge James Singleton of Alaska. “The Sign Code does not make any distinctions based on religion,” Callahan said.
“We conclude that the treatment is content-neutral,”Callahan wrote, pointing out the exceptions to the sign rules were narrowly tailored and leave open “ample alternative channels of communication.”
The tiny church, with just 25 to 30 adult members, posted 17 signs surrounding its rented church space in an elementary school in Chandler, Arizona. The site borders the town of Gilbert, which was not happy about all the signs.
But the church members and their pastor Clyde Reed believe the Bible commands them to make disciples of all nations. They carry this out by using signs to announce their services – 17 signs.
This created friction with the town of Gilbert. In 2005, the town notified the church it was violating a local sign ordinance and the church cut back on the number of signs. But the dispute continued.
The city argued the signs raised traffic safety and aesthetics issues.
In 2008, Good News filed a federal suit alleging the town violated its constitutional free speech rights and equal protection rights.
In 2009, the appeals court held the law did not violate the free speech rights but sent the case back on for consideration of the limited issue of unequal treatment of the church, because the city allows political signs without permits.
The trial judge found the city law was “narrowly tailored to serve significant government interests.”
The majority agreed. But in dissent, Judge Paul Watford said, for the city law to pass muster “Gilbert must explain why (for example) a 20-square-foot sign displayed indefinitely at a particular location poses an acceptable treat to traffic safety and aesthetics if it bears an ideological message, but would pose an unacceptable threat if the sign’s message instead invited people to attend Sunday church services.”
Case: Good News Community Church v. Town of Gilbert, No. 11-15588