WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appears likely to side with a small church in its fight with a Phoenix suburb over limits on roadside signs directing people to Sunday services.
At oral arguments Monday, liberal and conservative justices alike expressed misgivings with the Gilbert, Arizona, sign ordinance because it places more restrictions on the churches’ temporary signs than those erected by political candidates, real estate agents and others.
The Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed sued over limits that Gilbert places on so-called directional signs, like the ones the church places around town to point people to its services in local schools and retirement communities.
The directional signs can be no larger than 6 square feet. They must be placed in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and removed within an hour of its end. Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and can remain in place for several months. Other ideological signs, including a message from a church welcoming people to its services without the pointing the way, can be as large as 20 square feet.
Justice Samuel Alito sarcastically described how the church could erect a larger, temporary sign telling passers-by about an upcoming service. “We can’t tell you where it is because the town won’t let us,” Alito said, to laughter. “But if you drive by here tomorrow morning, you’ll see an arrow.”
Philip Savrin, the town’s lawyer, essentially agreed with Alito that the ordinance would allow what the justice described.
Justice Stephen Breyer indicated he didn’t like the arrangement any better than Alito did. “Well, my goodness. I mean…it does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?” Breyer asked Savrin.
Broad or narrow?
Less clear from the argument is whether the justices would use the case to make an important First Amendment ruling on the regulation of speech, or decide more narrowly in a way that affects the particular ordinance and not much else.
Lower federal courts upheld the town’s sign ordinance because the distinction it draws between different kinds of temporary signs is not based on what a sign says.
Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated he might prefer a narrower outcome when he suggested that a broad ruling would lead local governments to ban all signs or lead to a proliferation of messages ranging from “Save your soul” to “Happy Birthday, Uncle Fred.”
The church is joined by religious groups and the Obama administration in urging the Supreme Court to strike down the ordinance.
The church, which serves roughly 30 adults and up to 10 children, argues that the regulation’s significant difference in the size of the signs and how long they can be displayed is essentially regulation based on content, which the Supreme Court only rarely allows in First Amendment cases.
“The town’s code discriminates on its face by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they say,” said David Cortman, the church’s lawyer.
The National League of Cities and other associations of local officials are backing the town and warning that a ruling in favor of the church would make it “nearly impossible” for cities and towns to craft sign regulations that deal with a community’s appearance and safety.
A decision is expected by late June in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 13-502.
Among other action Monday:
* The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Colorado officials who want to make it easier for authorities to take blood samples from suspected drunk drivers without their permission or a warrant. The justices let stand a state supreme court ruling that excluded evidence of a Colorado man’s blood test that showed his blood-alcohol level at the time of a traffic accident was nearly three times the legal limit. Colorado had argued that police should be allowed to order blood samples when there is not enough time to get a warrant before blood alcohol levels decrease. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that authorities must consider several factors and be able to justify why they did not obtain a warrant before drawing blood.
* The court allowed a Michigan road worker to sue his former employer over a noisy, dirty job that the worker had requested. The justices rejected an appeal from the Kalamazoo County Road Commission that sought to block Robert Deleon’s lawsuit. He sued the commission for discrimination after he suffered from stress and exposure to soot and diesel fumes in his job as equipment superintendent.
Deleon was passed over for the job before the commission gave it to him in 2009 when others bowed out. He lasted less than a year due to tension with his superiors and health problems. A federal appeals court allowed the lawsuit to continue.
Justice Samuel Alito said he would have reversed the ruling, which he described as strange and unprecedented.
* The court rejected an appeal from New York property owners who say the federal government should compensate them for land converted to Manhattan’s High Line Park. The justices let stand an appeals court ruling that said owners of land around the unused freight rail line gave up their right to sue when they signed a deal with New York City officials to develop the park. The property owners claimed the federal government was not a party to their agreement with the city. They’re seeking compensation for giving up development rights to valuable land surrounding the 1 ½ mile long park on the city’s West Side. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled the agreement specifically prevented lawsuits against the United States.