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PHOENIX -- The town of Gilbert is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to quash a bid by a tiny religious congregation to be able to post and leave up year-round its signs directing people to its worship services.

Attorney Philip Savrin, representing the town, said there are legitimate reasons for time limits on the signs, ranging from public safety to blight. He said the court should reject claims by the church that its First Amendment rights are being violated.

But the case is about more than a spat between one community and a pastor.

There are statewide and national implications on the ability of communities to enact restrictions on certain kinds of signs. And the stakes are so high that even the Obama administration has weighed in on the side of the church, asking the justices to void the town's restrictions.

The Good News Community Church has no building of its own, conducting services in rented spaces. It currently meets in a senior living center.

It regularly posts signs directing would-be worshippers to the site.

But Gilbert regulations say temporary directional signs can be erected no earlier than 12 hours before the event and must be removed one hour after the services end.

The signs are limited to six square feet, versus 20 square feet for ideological signs and 16 feet for political signs in residential areas. And those signs can be kept up longer.

An attorney for the church said that amounts to discrimination.

Last year a majority of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there was no discrimination because the ordinance applies to all similar types of "temporary directional signs,'' regardless of the nature of the event. That led to the petition to the Supreme Court.

Savrin said that the church, in its appeal, is attempting to skirt the fact that its signs are providing directions. Now the church is calling them "invitations'' to the services, providing its name, website address, phone number, location, service time and directions.

He called that a "transparent attempt'' by the church and Pastor Clyde Reed to confuse the issue.

"They admitted (in earlier court proceedings) that their signs qualify as 'Temporary Directional Signs' under the sign code,'' Savrin told the justices. More to the point, he said if the church wants to promote itself or its ideology, it is free to do that, with larger signs that can remain in place longer -- as long as it does not also provide specific directions to the services.

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Editor

Chris Etling is the managing editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. He's worked for the Daily Sun since November 2009 and has lived in Flagstaff for 16 years.

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