Supreme Court to decide sign fight between church and Gilbert

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

GILBERT, Ariz. -- All signs point to Washington, D.C., in the fight between a small Valley church and the Town of Gilbert. The two sides have been battling over the use of roadside signs for years and now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in.

The Good News Community Church doesn't have its own building and moves its services from place to place. To help people find its weekly worship, the church likes to put out signs that direct folks to its current location.

But the signs go against Town of Gilbert ordinance, according to lawyers for the town.

"The town had an ordinance that said you could put up a temporary direction sign up to 12 hours before the event and an hour after the event," said Michael Hamblin, Gilbert town attorney.

Lawyers from the Scottsdale-based Christian law group Alliance Defending Freedom, however, believe the ordinance is unfair and violates the First Amendment.
 
"Their services are at 9 in the morning so they'd have to put up their signs at 9 at night so it's dark the entire time their signs are up," said Jeremy Tedesco, attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom.

The sign ordinance has several classifications for the different types of signage. The town considers the church's signs to be event directions -- the most restrictive classification.

"So they're treating an invitation to a church service or, since it applies to other nonprofits, an invitation to a meeting of another nonprofit, as far less important … compared to other political or ideological messages," Tedesco said. "That's unconstitutional."

But the town's lawyer said the ordinance applies equally to all and is necessary to avoid clutter. 

"You can put these signs in the right of way that say turn right here or turn left here, park here, but they're directional signs for the event only, they're not general advertising," Hamblin said.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city and now the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say. Arguments in D.C. are scheduled for Jan. 12.