Religious Liberty Clinic Files Supreme Court Brief in Church’s Freedom of Speech Case

The University of St. Thomas School of Law Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic has filed its latest amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a challenge by a small church to an ordinance that severely restricts the church’s ability to display temporary signs announcing and providing information about its Sunday worship services.

The brief, filed on behalf of a coalition of nine religious and civil rights groups, supports petitioners Pastor Clyde Reed and Good News Community Church, a congregation that rents space for services in a local public school. They challenge a provision in the town code of Gilbert, Arizona, that subjects signs promoting many noncommercial events, including church services, to more onerous restrictions than other categories of temporary lawn signs, such as political signs and signs making noncommercial ideological statements.

The brief argues that Gilbert’s disparate treatment of different categories of lawn signs violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it treats temporary signs differently based on the content of the message the signs seek to communicate. Moreover, the brief contends that the ordinance leaves the church with insufficient alternative means to get the word out to passersby about its Sunday church services and infringes on Good News’ First Amendment right to Freedom of Assembly. The brief argues that Freedom of Assembly is a constitutional right that is related to, but distinct from — and as important as — the constitutional right to Freedom of Speech.

Professor Thomas Berg, director of the Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, and third-year law student Michael Blissenbach are the principal co-authors of the brief. In addition, third-year law student James Kovacs made an important research contribution to the brief. Both students are current participants in the Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, which offers four to six law students each year the opportunity to draft briefs in important religious liberty cases, typically on behalf of national civil liberties and religious organizations filing as amicus curiae. The clinic gives students an intensive experience in formulating, writing and refining appellate arguments, with review by experienced advocates, and in the strategy of framing arguments by amici, who typically present distinctive information or issues that may benefit the judges deciding the case.

“Writing the brief with Professor Berg and Christian Legal Society attorney Kim Colby was one of the most rigorous and rewarding experiences I have had, and gave me firsthand experience at doing the sort of work that religious liberty attorneys do on a regular basis,” Blissenbach said. “This experience has deepened my desire to work to protect the rights of individuals and organizations to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their deeply held religious beliefs.”

Read the brief here.