From ANN, Jan. 17, 2015: Religious liberty issues were argued in a case this week before the United States Supreme Court and the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was among many organizations to have taken sides in the dispute. The case began in 2007 when the pastor of a small, nondenominational congregation in Arizona objected to the regulations the town placed on his signs inviting people to worship.
Is it legal under the Bill of Rights in the American constitution for a town council to require that a sign announcing a religious event be smaller than a sign promoting a political candidate? That is the issue was argued on Monday (Jan. 12) before the nation’s top court.
The legal office of the General Conference (GC) of the Adventist denomination filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the nondenominational pastor in the case entitled Reed vs Town of Gilbert. The Adventist lawyers said municipalities could unfairly restrict religious speech on signs or in door-to-door book sales if the Supreme Court does not overrule a lower court’s decision on the matter.
Clyde Reed, pastor of the Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona, placed temporary signs announcing worship services at an elementary school, where the congregation rented space at the time. His signs violated a local ordinance stating that temporary signs must be no larger than six square feet and be up no longer than 14 hours. Signs that do not announce events, including political campaign signs, can be larger in size (up to 32 square feet) and left up for many months. Reed filed a lawsuit claiming the ordinance was unconstitutional, but the ordinance was upheld by the Circuit Court of Appeals.
Adventist administrators feel that if the decision is not overruled it could embolden more cities to limit some methods of religious outreach. In some cities, religious groups such as Adventists are required to obtain a permit to sell religious books door-to-door while other groups are under no such obligation, for example the Girl Scouts selling cookies.
Local laws regulating door to door sales are popular in many communities in the United States because the vast majority of middle class suburban residents dislike this kind of activity. The market research firm Percept Group, Inc., found that two out of three Americans prefer not to be contacted by local churches going door to door.
Todd McFarland, an associate general counsel for the GC, said speech on religious matters is entitled to as much constitutional protection as any other kind of speech under the U.S. Constitution. “If a local government wants to implement speech restrictions on time, place and manner, those can be acceptable, but they need to treat all kinds of speech the same,” he told ANN. “We were concerned about the [Circuit court] interpretation about what is and is not a content-based restriction,” McFarland added. “It could limit religious speech in favor of other types of speech, such as political speech and public service announcements.”
Reed was first cited for posting roadside signs in 2005 and the town council has made several changes in the local law since his 2007 ticket which started the current litigation, according to The Arizona Republic newspaper. The town argued that the modifications in the law should be taken into consideration and has the support in the case of the National League of Cities and some similar organizations.
The top attorney for the U.S. government has said in court papers that the local law “was clearly unconstitutional because it favors one type of speech over another,” reported Reuters. A decision on the case is expected by the end of June.
The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.