Friday, January 8, 2016

A Fine for a Sign (Reed v Town of Gilbert)

"Do you mind if I ask you a religious question?" Pastor Clyde Reed asked the waitress at the popular chain restaurant where Mindy and I had arranged to have lunch with Clyde and his wife, Ann, during our time in Phoenix. Clyde is obviously not shy and retiring, which is a good thing considering that last year he and Ann were standing on the steps of the United States Supreme Court answering questions from the national press about their case before the justices.
Pastor Reed was the pastor of the Good News Presbyterian Church in Gilbert, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix). A small mission church plant, the congregation met in rented facilities, which changed from time to time. With a miniscule budget, it was important for the church to post signs to give the time and location of the Sunday morning services. Usually those signs were posted on Friday night.

One day about eight years ago, Pastor Reed found a citation on one of his signs when he went to collect it on Sunday afternoon. The citation stated that their sign was in violation of the city's ordinances. Another sign was confiscated. Pastor Reed went to the city to inquire about the citation and was told that according to the city policy of Gilbert, signs for church services could only be posted two hours before the service time, and signs had to be removed one hour after the service time. They must also meet regulations for size.

This puzzled Pastor Reed, because he had seen signs for yard sales that were posted days before the event and remained posted sometimes days after the event. He had seen political signs that were very much larger than the size regulations he was given. He was informed that the city regulations for church signage were different than the regulations for any other kind of signage.

Pastor Reed was at a loss to know how his small congregation (forty to sixty people on a Sunday) could fight city hall. A minister friend informed him about Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit organization that aids in the litigation of primarily First Amendment issues. ADF was willing to take Reed's case (which became as "Reed v. Town of Gilbert").

Pastor Reed says the congregation was fully supportive of the decision to pursue this legal course, even when four court decisions came out against the church and for the city. But in that fourth decision from the Ninth District, one of the three justices ruled in favor of the church, allowing the case to proceed to the Supreme Court.

Before the Supreme Court, the ADF lawyers argued that by singling out churches for different rules for signage, the city was discriminating against speech for its religious nature. This time, the ruling came out in favor of the Good News Church, a ruling of 9 - 0.

When I contacted Pastor Reed about getting together, he joked about enjoying the last gasps of their fading national fame. Pastor Reed (in his early 80's) recently retired from serving Good News Presbyterian after the church called Dr. Charles Roberts to take his place. We found Clyde and Ann to be cheery, lively folks, happy to share about their family and years in ministry.

The waitress, Danny, did answer Clyde's questions about religion. "If you should die today, do you know whether God would accept you into heaven?" he asked.
She said, "Yes." When he asked why, she asked for time to think about that. Danny came back to our table for conversation several times, and we learned that she came from out of state where she had gone to church with her grandparents, but she hadn't found a church in Arizona. Clyde told her about Good News Presbyterian, and Mindy wrote down the address and service time for her.

Jesus (in Matthew 12:39) said, "A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign." But I think He's okay with the signs pointing the way to Good News Presbyterian in Gilbert. Even retired, Pastor Clyde continues to point the way there as well. And more importantly, he continues to point the way to Jesus.