Interesting Law and Religion Case Before the Supreme Court Next Week

The Supreme Court’s January calendar begins next week with argument in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, a law and religion case that has gotten very little attention. The case relates to some of the issues that Mark Movsesian and Perry Dane have been talking about involving the New York City subway regulations concerning advertising. I found Perry’s phrase, “mental maps,” to be useful in thinking through the categories that we use to divide up both meanings and the motivations for expressing certain meanings. This case tests our mental maps.

It seems that the Town of Gilbert has a complex set of regulations governing the display of signs. It categorizes signs into five groups: political signs, ideological signs, “qualifying event” signs, homeowners’ association temporary signs, and real estate signs. Different rules regarding the size, duration, and location of the sign (among other variables) apply depending on the category of sign that one wishes to display.

The petitioners in the case are representatives of the Good News Community Church, a small Christian church that “holds services on Sundays, where attendees worship and fellowship together, learn biblical lessons, sing religious songs, pray for their community, and encourage others whenever possible.” Good News depends on signs to advertise its presence and invite people to join.

The Town has classified Good News as the sort of organization entitled to “qualifying event signs.” A “qualifying event sign” is a “temporary sign intended to direct pedestrians, motorists, and other passersby to a ‘qualifying event.’ A ‘qualifying event’ is any assembly, gathering, activity, or meeting sponsored, arranged, or promoted by a religious, charitable, community service, educational, or other similar non-profit organization.”

By contrast, a “political sign” is a “temporary sign which supports candidates for office or urges action on any other matter on the ballot of primary, general and special elections relating to any national, state or local election.”

And an “ideological sign” is a “sign communicating a message or ideas for non- commercial purposes that is not a Construction Sign, Directional Sign, Temporary Directional Sign Relating to a Qualifying Event, Political Sign, Garage Sale Sign, or a sign owned or required by a governmental agency.”

The petitioners’ basic complaint is that by lumping the Church in with organizations entitled only to a “qualifying event” sign, the Town is engaging in viewpoint discrimination against it, because it is only entitled to a tiny sign of very limited duration that can only be displayed in limited locations. The Town’s justification for this highly reticulated set of requirements and classifications? “Safety and aesthetics.” Also of interest is that at some point in the procedural history (which looks rather involved), the Town amended certain locational requirements for “qualifying events signs,” replacing them with a requirement that “qualifying events signs” must “relate to events in the Town of Gilbert.” That requirement does not apply to political or ideological signs. The Church claims that this amendment was made specifically to target it for unfavorable treatment.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the argument goes. Here is an interesting contrast contained in the Petitioners’ Brief:

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