U.S. top court rules for church in free speech case over signs

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that an Arizona town violated a local church's free speech rights by preventing it from posting signs notifying the public of its worship services.

WASHINGTON - The  U.S. Supreme Court  on Thursday ruled that an  Arizona  town violated a local church's free speech rights by preventing it from posting signs notifying the public of its worship services.

The court, on a unanimous 9-0 vote, ruled in favor of Good News Community Church, which objected to its treatment by town officials in  GilbertArizona .

Justice  Clarence Thomas  wrote on behalf of the court that the town's sign ordinance violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which protects free speech rights, because it favored certain forms of speech over others.

The church's signs directing people to services were deemed to be event signs, which meant they received "far worse treatment" than other types, including those displaying political and ideological messages, its lawyers said.

Thomas wrote that the town had failed to justify why limits on event signs were needed while similar restrictions were not imposed on, for example, ideological signs.


"If anything, a sharply worded ideological sign seems more likely to distract a driver than a sign directing the public to a nearby church meeting," Thomas said.

The church's leader, Pastor  Clyde Reed , challenged the town's 2008 sign ordinance, which has different categories based on content that determine the size of the sign, where it can be placed and how long it can be displayed.

"Speech discrimination is wrong regardless of whether the government intended to violate the First Amendment or not, and it doesn't matter if the government thinks its discrimination was well-intended," said  David Cortman , an attorney at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group that represented the church.

The only supporters for the town in the case were groups representing local government, which said in court papers the  Gilbert  ordinance was legal in part because the restriction imposed on the church was the same one that other churches and civic groups advertising public events were bound by.

"Today's decision by the Supreme Court wreaks havoc on the ability of local governments to implement sign code regulations that are responsive to the needs of their communities," said  Clarence Anthony , the chief executive of the  National League  of Cities.

The Supreme Court reversed a February 2013 ruling in which the  9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  rejected the church's challenge.

A new, less restrictive ordinance was enacted in 2011.

In a separate free speech case decided on Thursday, the court upheld the right of  Texas  officials to reject a proposed specialty license plate that featured an image of the Confederate flag.


The case is  Reed v. GilbertU.S. Supreme Court , No. 13-502. 

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