One tiny church prompts a Supreme Court debate on whether some speech is more valuable than others
You have to get up pretty early in the morning to attend the services at Pastor Clyde Reed’s church … and you have to know where you’re going. There’s no steeple, no church-looking building to draw your attention. No stream of cars or teeming crowds. And hardly a sign to tell you where to go.
Where you go is to Gilbert Elementary School … a vast campus, as elementary schools go, but away from the main thoroughfares of this fast-growing Arizona town just southeast of Phoenix. You have to take a side street, turn into the sprawling parking area the school shares with several city government buildings, drive down to the far, far end of the lot, hang a right, and drive down to the end of another long, narrow parking area.
If you get out there early enough, you can help Clyde and his wife, Ann, carry their church stuff—a little table, some flowers, a heavy box of hymnals—across the grass and around a few corners to the building that houses the school’s music classroom. You can join the 15-20 other folks making their way into the cheerful mix, laughing and talking weather and helping set up the chairs and the accoutrements of communion.
It’s the pretty usual group for a suburban Sunday morning: mostly older; coats and ties, blue jeans and open collars; couples and widows. They smile easily and genuinely to greet the Reeds, who know them all very well. It may be a small congregation, but Clyde takes a caring interest in each of them, asking questions about their families and the week’s events.
Time is short—the Reeds will finish here in time to reload the car and head over to a nearby senior living center for a second, late-morning service. They’ll just have time for lunch before moving on to an Alzheimer’s facility for their third service of the day. It makes for a full but tiring Sunday for the couple, now in their early 80s. No microphones, no TV cameras, no megachurch audience. Theirs is a warm but obscure ministry, lived out in the easygoing backwaters of a quiet desert town.
"When your service is at 9, [posting a sign] two hours before doesn't do much for you."
And yet … their obscurity somehow isn’t enough for this town’s leading administrators, whose curious determination to make the Reeds all but invisible has inadvertently drawn national attention to their community, surprised Clyde and Ann in a late-in-life spotlight, and raised far-reaching questions at the U.S. Supreme Court about freedom of speech for all Americans.
Clyde harbored no ambitions to rock small-town boats or make legal waves some 60 years ago when he moved to Schenectady, New York, fresh out of tech school, to take up a new job with General Electric. He had no intentions of preaching, either, and no great interest in God. The only reason he joined a local Presbyterian church, he admits, was to find himself a girl.
“I didn’t find the girl, but I did find the Lord,” he says, and his new faith took sufficient hold on his personality and conversation that his minister decided he had the makings of a preacher. Clyde took the hint, moved north to Montreal, and enrolled in pre-seminary courses at McGill University. His faith remained strong, and he became a leader among the Christian students on campus. But gradually the zeal for professional ministry faded. He switched back to his original ambition, engineering—and met the girl.
Ann was a McGill student from Vermont who had grown up in church but knew God only from afar. She had already taken an instant shine to Clyde when, back home during a summer break, she made her own decision for Christ. “The Lord just ‘zapped’ me,” she laughs, “and I knew I was ‘zapped!’”
Back on campus that fall, Clyde began to notice her, too, and soon enough the two graduated, married, and moved back to the U.S. They were well along in starting a family and building Clyde’s career when his fellow engineers—the ones who weren’t Christians—began telling him the same thing his pastor had, years before … that he should consider going into the ministry. Clyde took that as divine nudging, and elected to give seminary one more shot.
He and Ann sold their house, packed up their children, loaded the car and the truck and the U-Haul trailer, and headed out again for seminary. As they pulled out for Canada, a neighbor came out to wish them well on their new careers. “We’ll pray that this is the Lord’s will!” he called.
“It was,” Ann says, sharing a smile with her husband. “And it’s been great.”
A half-century can go by pretty fast when you’re investing yourself in the lives of others. The Reeds poured themselves into congregations and communities of varying size in New York, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, and Maryland. Retirement age eventually came and went, but fishing, golf, bingo, watching TV—none of those held much appeal for Clyde. The only thing that really interested him was the thing he was already doing: sharing the Gospel.
One idea did take hold. Retiring, he realized, might give him the freedom and time to be a missionary, as well as a pastor. “We could just start churches,” he told Ann. “That’s the most fun.” They bought a “fifth wheel” trailer and hit the road, trying their hand at growing churches in Maryland. But the golden opportunity came in a phone call from their daughter, Paula, who was living with her family in Gilbert, an Arizona town not far from where the Reeds had ministered years before.
“If you’re going to start another church,” she suggested, “come here. We’re having trouble finding one we really like.” Her folks took her up on the offer.
It was slow going, at first … feeling their way in a new community, where many either had a church home already or weren’t especially interested in finding one. But Clyde, particularly, enjoyed the challenge. Their denomination “had nothing out here,” he says. “And I guess it was advantageous for us, because we sort of were left on our own. We enjoyed that.”
“It was lots of excitement—nothing laid out for you,” Ann says. “You sort of winged it—and he likes winging it.”
The church they began struggled to take root. The Reeds moved their fledgling congregation from one location to another, as attendance ebbed and flowed … somebody’s home, a public-school classroom, a different school in a more growing part of town. Though they tried several kinds of advertising, their best turned out to be the small signs Clyde put out at major cross streets, directing passersby to the latest meeting place.
“That was our main way to reach people,” he says. The church finally settled into more-or-less permanent weekly residence at one particular school, “and the growth there was the best we’d had anywhere, mainly because of the signs.”
"To see a sign is a lot easier for me, and for a lot of people, than to get on
Irl Noble, member of the Reed's church
a computer and research."
But the signs, as it turned out, weren’t just pointing visitors to the location of the church. They were also pointing the Reeds toward a most unexpected destiny.
“We got in trouble,” Ann says. “We were putting them out on Saturday, and we didn’t know the [city ordinance] was that they could only be out two hours before your service, and they were to be down one hour after.” The problem, of course, was that “when your service is at 9 o’clock, two hours before doesn’t do very much for you.”
One Sunday, retrieving his signs, Clyde found that one of them had a citation on it. Another was missing —the city had confiscated it. Clyde went down to city hall to see what the problem was. He learned that Gilbert had very detailed restrictions on the kind of signs he was posting—what size they could be, where they could be posted, some even requiring written permission.
Clyde was confused. He saw many other signs posted all over town … realty signs, signs promoting political candidates and causes. He found it hard to believe that all those sign posters had been jumping through the same bureaucratic and legal hoops now being spelled out for him by city officials.
In fact, they weren’t. The Town of Gilbert, it turned out, had a different set of rules for signs promoting churches. The other signs the Reeds saw throughout the community were not nearly as restricted as to size, number, placement, or how long they could be posted. Why the special fuss about church signs, they wondered.
They never got a satisfactory explanation. Gilbert officials simply told Clyde that if he continued to violate the city’s code, he could be subject to criminal fines, even jail time. All for a few small signs, up for little more than a day, telling passersby where a church was meeting. Clyde thought it over, and decided to take action.
“You know, we view ourselves, as Christians, as making good citizens,” he says. By bringing church and faith to communities, he says, pastors like himself “are out there helping these cities and towns, and we don’t understand why they want to make it difficult.” They didn’t like finding themselves in opposition to the government … but they weren’t ready to give up their rights, either. The question was, where to turn for help?
"It’s still surreal, and so wonderful … the way the Lord orchestrated everything."
“What you need to do is call Alliance Defending Freedom,” a minister friend told Clyde. The Reeds, whose church had no money to retain a lawyer or pursue legal action, made the call—and were delighted to find not only that ADF attorneys were interested in their case, but would represent them free of charge. The lawyers, for their part, were impressed with the Reeds, too.
“Just really warm, loving, genuine people to be around,” says Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, the ADF attorney who first contacted them. “You’re never far away from a laugh with Clyde, and you’re never far away from an interesting story with Ann.”
Still, while working to help them, he at first had no inkling that theirs was any more than a local case about local issues, to be resolved with minimal ado.
“You have certain cases in your mind as a First Amendment attorney,” he says. “We strategize about certain cases that we think have a good chance of making it to the Supreme Court, cases that will advance our legal goals in the First Amendment realm. A sign ordinance case wasn’t one of the ones we were really targeting. But, you know, God has greater plans. And the case turned out to involve some critical First Amendment issues.”
At first, even Gilbert officials seemed willing to make the case go away. Faced with the prospect of a preliminary injunction barring them from enforcing their sign code against the Reeds, the town quickly offered to amend the code. But “amending,” it turned out, meant applying their unlawful free speech restrictions to more than just religious assemblies.
“So it was, essentially, ‘We’re going to add more people to the back of the free speech bus,’” says Tedesco. “We told them that wasn’t going to solve the problem.” With that, the legal battle was joined in earnest—and ultimately turned into an eight-year donnybrook.
“We litigated the case hot and heavy in the lower courts,” Tedesco says. ADF argued for the Reeds twice before a district court, and twice more at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit—and lost all four times. “But we kept fighting,” says Tedesco. “We knew that our cause was right, and we really felt like the law was on our side, even though the courts, we thought, kept getting it wrong. So that’s what inspired us to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.” On July 1, 2014, the High Court granted that petition.
“What’s amazing about this case,” says ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued on behalf of the Reeds at the Supreme Court, “is you look at it and, on its surface, it’s about signs. And you think, ‘Well, who really cares? There are too many signs out there anyway.’ But there are so many layers, as you unravel it … it’s not only about their church, it’s not only about signs, it’s about speech in all contexts —whether you’re speaking orally, or using a forum, or distributing leaflets, or using signs. And the Supreme Court is basically going to decide what tests we should use to figure out if the government can discriminate against religious speech.”
Gilbert officials, Cortman says, are “actually arguing in their brief that they should be able to ban the Reeds’ signs because they don’t have any value … that church speech is of lesser value than other types of speech,” such as political, ideological, and homeowners’ association signs.
“One of the arguments we’re making is that inviting someone to church to hear about the Gospel, is, we think, more important than political speech,” Cortman says. “The justices may not agree with that, but we hope they will agree that the government shouldn’t get to pick and choose which speakers are its favorites and which are not, and which are of lesser value under the First Amendment.”
“If the government can do that, they can basically eliminate entire ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace,” says Tedesco. “They’re small signs, but the First Amendment stakes are enormous.”
On January 12 of this year, Cortman presented the Reeds’ case at the U.S. Supreme Court. Clyde and Ann were in the courtroom, a little agog at what all these years of litigation had brought them to.
“It’s still surreal,” Ann says. “And so wonderful … the number of people, the number of hours involved in our case. The way the Lord orchestrated everything. You realize that God can pick you out of nothing, and say, ‘I’m going to use you in this way.’ It’s very humbling.”
"Our signs inviting people to church are very important, yet are treated as second-class speech."
After the hearing, Clyde—so accustomed in recent years to talking to a sprinkling of churchgoers, or a roomful of wandering Alzheimer’s patients —found himself standing on the great marble steps of the nation’s highest court, in a freezing rain, facing the microphones and cameras of the national media.
“This whole experience has been shocking to me,” he told the gathered reporters. “Our signs inviting people to church are very important, yet are treated as second-class speech. We aren’t asking for special treatment; we just want our town to stop favoring the speech of others over ours. I pray that the Supreme Court will affirm our First Amendment freedoms and uphold our church’s and others’ free speech rights.”
On June 18, his prayer was answered. The High Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the Reeds, affirming their First Amendment rights and freeing them to post their small signs on the quiet streets of Gilbert once more.
“One of the most effective ways for churches meeting in a temporary space to tell people where they are is to put up these kinds of temporary signs and advertise their services, and invite people to come,” Tedesco says. “Clyde and Ann have struggled for eight years because of this town’s sign code, just to tell people where they meet. My hope is that now they can put up more signs to invite more people to hear the Gospel at their church.” The Reeds see ADF as a partner in that outreach.
“We have great admiration for ADF,” Clyde says. “We’re working together to build the Kingdom, that Jesus might be exalted. It’s great to find further allies. We thank them for that.”
In truth, the long struggle to build a church without benefit of signs or advertising has taken its toll on the Reeds. So has leading three services every Sunday, often for only a handful of people. But in its way, their legal case—and its ultimate success—have given them new perspective, and a sense of God using them in a different, perhaps more important way than they ever imagined.
After all, Clyde says, big churches with permanent sites don’t really need signs. Only little, impermanent ones do. “Maybe the sign thing is part of the reason we’ve stayed small,” he says. “If the church had been big, the signs would never have been an issue.”
“The greatness of God,” Ann marvels, “that He would take a wee little church like ours, and maybe make a change for the whole country, and churches all across our country, that they can put out signs that will not be stomped on, inviting people to come to church and meet the Lord.”
“We hope that will be the result,” Clyde says, but he is content to leave the results of this long struggle in the hands that brought them through it. “All this is of God,” he says. “He bears the fruit.”