Permits

The town of Gilbert says signs directing churchgoers to Sunday services have no religious right to clutter the roadside 24/7, any more than any other temporary event, touching off a legal fight that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gilbert is asking the court to quash a bid by the tiny Good News Community Church, which has no building of its own but conducts services in rented spaces, to be able to leave the signs up full time, in violation of the town’s sign code.

Attorney Philip Savrin, representing the town, said there are legitimate reasons for time limits on the signs, ranging from public safety to blight. He said the court should reject claims by the church that its First Amendment rights are being violated.

But the case is about more than a spat between one community and a pastor.

There are statewide and national implications on the ability of communities to enact restrictions on certain kinds of signs. And the stakes are so high even the Obama administration has weighed in on the side of the church, asking the justices to void the town’s restrictions.

The church, which currently rents space in a senior living center, regularly posts signs directing would-be worshipers to the site.

But Gilbert regulations say temporary directional signs can be erected no earlier than 12 hours before an event and must be removed one hour after the services end.

Further, the signs are limited to 6 square feet, versus 20 square feet for ideological signs and 16 feet for political signs in residential areas. And those signs can be kept up longer.

An attorney for the church said that is discrimination.

Last year, a majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said there was no discrimination because the ordinance applies to all similar types of “temporary directional signs,” regardless of the nature of the event.

Savrin said the church, in its appeal, is attempting to skirt the fact its signs give directions. Now the church is calling them “invitations” to its services, providing its name, website, phone number, location, time and directions. He called that a “transparent attempt” by the church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, to confuse the issue.

“They admitted (in earlier court proceedings) that their signs qualify as ‘temporary directional signs’ under the sign code,” Savrin told the justices.

He said if the church wants to promote itself or its ideology, it is free to do so with larger signs that can remain in place longer, as long as it does not also provide specific directions to the services.

The only purpose of the signs, Savrin said, is to get the attention of pedestrians and motorists, and to make it easier for people to find the site.

He said the provision doesn’t just apply to the weekly church service, but all temporary events, “which, if unrestricted, could proliferate and become a blight long after the events took place.”

“Indeed, because the First Amendment does not require directional signs, Gilbert could have banned them altogether,” he wrote. “Viewed in that light, Gilbert has allowed religious organization such as Good News (and other nonprofit associations) to post directions to ‘qualifying events’ that would otherwise be prohibited.”

Sarvin said the limits on directional signs “directly addresses the source of the evil created by a proliferation of signs — visual blight, safety and deterioration of real estate values.”

The town is fighting not only the church but the federal government. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli has asked the justices to rule that a greater restriction on directional signs cannot be justified.

“Respondents have failed to adequately explain how the goals of improving safety and aesthetics are appropriately advanced by treating ideological and political signs more favorably than temporary directional signs,” Verrilli wrote. “Temporary directional signs are not greater an eyesore than ideological or political signs. And temporary directional signs, which will help some drivers find their destination, may actually improve traffic safety.