A small Arizona church’s court victory over a city sign ordinance is forcing local governments to examine their own rules to ensure compliance.
Law and legal precedent have long held that the First Amendment forbids government from regulating signs based on their content. But in a unanimous 9-0 ruling in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the act of classifying signs for regulatory purposes – creating rules for election signs, yard signs, temporary events, etc. – can be content-based regulation and, therefore, unconstitutional.
While local governments and the legal experts who represent them are confident their sign ordinances will survive mostly intact, they are not taking any chances.
McHenry County late last year ratified its unified development ordinance, which officially completed a years-long overhaul of all development-related ordinances pertaining to unincorporated areas. Deputy Planning Director Darrell Moore said the chapter of the ordinance dealing with signs is now being examined.
“I believe our ordinance is enforceable at this point, however, it is under review,” Moore said.
Clyde Reed, the pastor of Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona, sued the city over an ordinance that treated its directional signs to the different locations at which it holds its worship services differently from other signs.
The city cited the church for exceeding the 13-hour time limit for directional signs – by comparison, city ordinance allows political signs to be displayed for up to five months.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the unanimous court, concluded that such a distinction is content-based and, therefore, unconstitutional, and that a municipality must have a “compelling interest” to have different standards for signs.
Municipal attorney Michael Smoron of the Crystal Lake law firm Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle does not predict many of McHenry County’s sign laws will require major overhauls.
He said local governments had content neutrality in mind when they drew up or revised their sign ordinances, and are not as stringent as that of Gilbert. For example, temporary signs in unincorporated areas do not even require a county permit under its ordinance.
“The municipalities with whom we work don’t try to divide up messages like this town did,” Smoron said. “Although everyone says that the Supreme Court has never gone this far, it was also in response to very aggressive regulation.”
“We have a lot of content neutrality in our ordinance, but the Supreme Court ruling has taken that farther,” Rentsch said.