Just as everyone was headed home from Columbus, Ohio, from another productive Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, word came of a major victory at the U.S. Supreme Court for free speech and church planters. On June 18 the Supremes delivered a stunning, unanimous 9-0 victory for the 82-year-old pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church in Gilbert, Ariz., finding that the Town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance is content-based discrimination. The win paves the way for smaller congregations and church planters, who often meet temporarily in non-traditional church venues, to place small outdoor signs announcing worship times and locations.
Kansas City attorney Michael Whitehead and his son, Jonathon, approached Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director John Yeats and myself, as director of public policy for the MBC and liaison to the Christian Life Commission, early last fall about filing an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in behalf of Pastor Clyde Reed, who was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Recognizing the threat to MBC and Southern Baptist Convention church planting efforts through the North American Mission Board’s Send North America project, we felt compelled to assist in the case. The Whiteheads did a superb job with the 39-page brief. The Supreme Court ruling reverses a 2-1 verdict for the city by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California.
Reed filed suit against the Town of Gilbert in 2013 for placing restrictions on his church’s temporary signs based solely on their content. Good News is a small church that has no permanent home. While the town allows a plethora of political, ideological and other types of temporary signs, it restricted the size, location, duration and number of signs Pastor Reed used to invite people to church services. The town forced Reed to put up his signs in the dark of night on Saturdays and rush to take them down right after Sunday services. Before the Supreme Court ruling, Reed risked facing fines and jail time if his signs were left up for longer than 12 hours. The town tried to justify its actions on the basis of aesthetics and safety.
“I never dreamed my small church signs would be a topic for the Supreme Court,” Reed said. “This whole experience has been shocking to me – our signs inviting people to church are very important yet are treated as second-class speech. We aren’t asking for special treatment; we just want our town to stop favoring the speech of others over ours.”
The brief filed by the MBC’s Christian Life Commission argues that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling endangers free exercise rights by allowing discriminatory burdens to be imposed on religious, non-profit event signs. It also argues that Gilbert’s sign ordinance raises First Amendment Establishment Clause concerns as it appears to favor larger religious groups. It notes, in particular, how Southern Baptist churches are predominately small congregations, who work together to plant new churches. “These church plants often start as small groups, without permanent facilities, focused on including people and places that are sometimes excluded elsewhere. Some of these church planters report that signs are sometimes the best and only way to communicate with local marginalized groups. Baptists are sensitive to efforts by local government to exclude congregations that are new, small or made up of the poor or powerless.”
The MBC brief concludes by slamming the Gilbert sign ordinance for threatening the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. “Good News’ right to peaceably assemble is burdened by the code,” it states. “Good News says that when it reduces the number of its signs (due to Gilbert’s Code), the church observes a drop in attendance. The purpose of directional signs, of course, cannot be separated from their role in coordinating the actual meeting; for example, a person aware of the church, but relying on a series of signs, may not be able to find the service. A restriction on directional signs is, in effect, a restriction on the ability of the group to assemble to operate its meeting.”
This case demonstrates again why Christians must be involved in public policy matters. As religious liberty attorneys have noted, a government that has the power to pick and choose which speech to allow and which to censor is a threat to all people who cherish freedom. This court victory demonstrates again that the government cannot play favorites when it comes to speech – whether it agrees with it or not.
Bottom line: This ruling prohibits the government from discriminating against signs based on content; prohibits the government from valuing one type of speech over another and protects religious speech from government censorship. This is a good ruling for America. It is an especially good ruling if you are a church planter.