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Ariz. town urged to stop discriminating against houses of worship

Phoenix, Ariz., Sep 28, 2014 / 06:02 am .- Local government restrictions in Gilbert, Arizona are threatening the protection of religious speech by limiting signs promoting houses of worship while allowing political, ideological, and noncommercial signs to stand without the same restriction.

“Religious speech enjoys full protection under the First Amendment,” noted Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, saying in a September 25 statement that “the government has no place deciding that political signs deserve more space and attention than religious speech.”

The Becket Fund is urging the Supreme Court to protect religious speech, saying that the local restrictions implemented in 2005 in Gilbert are an intentional discrimination against houses of worship, namely the Good News Community Church.

The pastor of Good News Church, Clyde Reed, has been commanded to use small, 2 x 3 foot signs, which should be taken down after fourteen hours, while other larger, noncommercial signs are able to stand for months.

Although the town of Gilbert endeavored to explain the discriminatory restrictions against houses of worship saying they were concerned with traffic safety and aesthetics, Alliance Defending Freedom is not convinced that safety is their first priority.

“Gilbert must explain why a 32-square-foot sign displayed in the right-of-way virtually all year long is not a threat to traffic safety and aesthetics if it bears a political message, but it is such a threat if it invites people to church service,” stated the ADF opening brief which was filed with the Supreme Court, saying that “Gilbert has never provided a satisfactory explanation to this question because none exists.”

Ecclesial communities such as Good News Community represent the smaller, newer houses of worship in the town of Gilbert. Because they do not have a permanent location and are not financially wealthy, one of the only ways to share their message of community and faith is to display street signs.

Under the town’s law, signs promoting or standing by houses of worship must be 60% smaller than ideological signs and 81% smaller than political signs. While signs for politicians can stand for months and ideological signs can stand for an indefinite amount of time, street signs for churches, mosques, or synagogues can only be displayed for 14 hours.

“Is anyone surprised that politicians gave themselves a special deal? Thank goodness the Constitution says that ‘Vote for Me!’ is not a more important message than ‘Come pray with us,’” stated Rassbach.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty argues in the amicus brief that this arbitrary prejudice is specifically targeting religious houses of worship. They also argue that the content-based regulations are intentional content discrimination, and that the town’s ordinance is thus violating the First Amendment.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are representing the plaintiffs, and filed their opening brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

“No law should treat the speech of churches worse than the speech of other similar speakers,” stated ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.

“One look at the political signs Gilbert allows on street corners virtually all year reveals how the town applies stricter rules to church signs than it does to political signs, let alone other noncommercial signs. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.”

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