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How a Little Sign Can Mean Big Things for Freedom

Marissa Mayer
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Reed Church Sign

Imagine our freedoms as a block tower similar to the one in a game of Jenga. All of those little building blocks of freedoms we enjoy make up the overarching freedom granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to live our lives according to our faith without government intrusion or censorship.

Each time a block is removed, we are one step closer to the tower coming crashing down.

But some blocks are cornerstones.  When such a block is removed, the game ends quickly because it is an essential foundation on which all the other blocks rely.

The Supreme Court is prepared to hear oral arguments in the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert in January—a case that directly implicates several cornerstone blocks in our free speech Jenga tower.

Pastor Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona, has been a pastor for over 40 years. His congregation currently rents temporary spaces each week for their services, and Pastor Reed uses signs to invite and direct people to his church services.

But there's a problem—the town imposes strict limits on the size, location, number, and duration of the church's signs, while granting political and other temporary signs far better treatment. 

  • Political signs can be up to 32 square feet, displayed for many months, and unlimited in number.
  • Ideological signs can be up to 20 square feet, displayed indefinitely, and unlimited in number.
  • Religious signs can only be 6 square feet, may be displayed for no more than 14 hours, and are limited to 4 per property.

Not only that, there are very real consequences for people who violate the town's sign ordinance. If Pastor Reed's signs are too big or left out too long, he could face fines and even jail time.

But the outcome of this case will affect more than a few little church signs.

The town wants to remove two indispensable supports—two cornerstone Jenga blocks—of our fundamental free speech rights: the block that that says the government cannot regulate speech based on a subjective evaluation of its “worth," and the block that says speech discrimination is illegal regardless of the government’s motive.

The First Amendment requires equality in the marketplace of ideas.  By stating the church's signs are less valuable than political and other speech, the town is ignoring the church's free speech rights and claiming to have the power to handicap, and even eliminate, speech it deems unimportant.

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit has required that Pastor Reed prove the Town of Gilbert discriminated against the Church’s signs because it disagreed with their message.  In court, motive can be really hard to prove, but ultimately, what does it matter? Whether the discrimination is intentional or unintentional should not be a reason to allow it to continue, which the Supreme Court has verified on several occasions. The Gilbert Sign Ordinance, by its very terms, discriminates against religious signs. That is enough to prove a First Amendment violation.

The plain truth is that removing either one of these cornerstone blocks would be devastating to our constitutional freedoms.  Just think, if the government can single out and restrict religious signs without a compelling reason, what other types of free speech could it censor?

Take Action

Stay tuned for more updates on the Reed v. Town of Gilbert case. Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman will be arguing for our clients, Pastor Clyde Reed and Good News Community Church, before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 12, 2015.

We ask that you'll spread the word about this case on social media and be praying for ADF attorneys and Pastor Reed as they prepare for this important moment in the history of free speech.

Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer
Senior Copywriter & Editor
Marissa Mayer is an Arizona native who fell in love with the written word at a young age.