The Supreme Court issued an extraordinarily strong decision that protects the First Amendment rights of churches. This was a victory for small churches and church planters across America.
In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Supreme Court faced a thorny situation: a town that targeted signs for “Religious Temporary Assemblies” with restrictive ordinances. Political signs had few rules, but church event signs were highly regulated. The town claimed it was being ‘content neutral’ because it had at least one pure motive — aesthetics and/or safety.
We authored a brief amicus curiae on behalf of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Committee, explaining the many ways that allegedly ‘neutral’ regulations mask unconstitutional restrictions. These rules favored majority religions at the expense of small or new churches.
A copy of our brief is here.
Two of three judges on a Ninth Circuit panel upheld the sign code in spite of Supreme Court precedents which have declared unconstitutional laws which restrict signs or other speech based on the content of the sign. The appeals court said the new code words are content-neutral because they apply to a neutral class of speakers, not to the content of the signs. And the court said government officials had good intentions to promote safety and aesthetes, and were not discriminating against small churches.
The Whitehead brief argued that officials can’t excuse their discrimination by appealing to their “good intentions” to reduce sign clutter. “Bad laws can’t be saved by good intentions,” the brief states. “And bad laws are not made better by increasing the number of people treated badly.”
The original code targeting religious assemblies was not made better by adding “other non-profits” to the class of persons burdened by restrictions, according to the brief.
In today’s ruling, all nine Justices agreed that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The Court’s majority opinion said “content neutrality” does not depend on having a pure motive. If the ordinance discriminates based on content, it is unlikely to be Constitutional.
Dangers like those addressed in our brief made this a 9-0 decision. The Town tried to save the rule by making it apply to groups other than churches. But clearly, the Town had started out by specifically targeting religious speech. Even Justice Kagan, who would have imposed a different test, found the Town’s explanations incoherent.
This strong free speech rule protects and preserves the rights of churches who want to reach the people around them.