Hillside Baptist Church (the Church) and Signs for Jesus (S.4.J.C.) (together, Plaintiffs) recently filed a complaint in the District Court for New Hampshire, seeking a declaration that the Town of Pembroke’s (the Township) sign ordinance is unconstitutional both facially and as applied to the Plaintiffs. According to the Plaintiffs, the Township’s Ordinance “restricts how the Church may proclaim a daily Biblical message while not restricting the medium of communicating state, municipal or school messages.” Plaintiffs’ complaint in Signs for Jesus and Hillside Baptist Church v. Town of Pembroke and Hodge, is available here.
The Church and S.4.J.C. seek to “install an electronic message center sign on its property that will display a daily Biblical message.” According to the Concord Monitor, the Church is located in a zoning district that does not allow electronic signs. Still, the Plaintiffs argue that it is unlawful to prohibit their proposed sign when a near-by gas station, a near-by public school and temporary Department of Transportation signs all use electronic displays
Since the Church’s proposed sign (depicted in the image above and available in the Plaintiffs’ complaint) was not allowed by the Township’s zoning enforcement officer and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Plaintiffs claim facial and as applied violations of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, and RLUIPA’s equal terms provision as well as violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the New Hampshire Constitution and state zoning law.
The complaint relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, 135 S.Ct. 2218 (2015)(relevant posts here and here). Plaintiffs claim that several exemptions within the Township’s zoning ordinance regulate signs based on the content or the purpose of the sign’s intended message. According to the complaint, the sign ordinance also impermissibly distinguishes between different types of signs. “For example, different rules apply to political signs, as opposed to informational and directional signs, or that apply to construction or sale/rent/lease signs.” According to Plaintiffs, the Ordinance is over-broad, favors commercial speech over religious speech and “chills protected speech by discouraging individuals and groups from placing signs for the purpose of engaging in protected speech based on the religious nature of the sign.”