CHARLESTON – West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued the following statement Thursday applauding the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision saying the First Amendment protects a church’s right to post a sign advertising its services.
“West Virginia and other states believe this is an important decision protecting freedom of speech and religion,” Morrisey said. “Now it is clear that the government does not have the authority to systematically favor messages based on what they say.”
In September, West Virginia led nine other states in an amicus, or friend of the court, brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s ruling that upheld a sign ordinance passed by the town of Gilbert, Ariz. The ordinance placed size limitations on signs put up by churches and nonprofit groups, but did not impose similar restrictions on other signs, including political signs. A local church, Good News Community Church, and its pastor, Clyde Reed, filed the lawsuit against the ordinance.
“Our office is pleased the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the government cannot pick and choose which messages citizens may post on signs,” Morrisey said Thursday. “Citizens have the right to decide what messages they want to share, and the government cannot permit signs for only topics and speakers that the government likes.”
Gilbert’s ordinance restricted signs promoting the events, meetings or activities of nonprofit groups, including local churches, while it broadly permitted any political or ideological signs. For example, political signs could be up to 32 square feet in size, displayed for many months and in unlimited number. An ideological sign could be up to 20 square feet, and also displayed indefinitely and in unlimited number. However, a church’s signs could only be six square feet and be displayed for no more than 14 hours with a limit of four per property.
“This case raised important doctrinal questions about the proper standards and level of scrutiny for laws that discriminate on the basis of the content of speech,” Morrisey said. “This is a strong decision that will help protect free speech in many contexts beyond sign ordinances.”
The amicus brief was signed by attorneys general from the states of West Virginia, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.