Denial of Electronic Sign to Church did not Infringe on Religious Liberty

Signs for Jesus v. Town of Pembroke*
U.S. District Court, New Hampshire, Opinion No. 2017 DNH 016
Friday, January 27, 2017

Hillside Baptist Church and Signs for Jesus were denied a permit to install an electronic sign on the Church’s property in Pembroke and they brought an action against the Town alleging violations of the United States Constitution, the New Hampshire Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The US District Court in Concord concluded that (1) the Town’s decision to deny the Church’s request for an electronic sign had nothing to do with either religion or the content of the  Church’s speech, (2) the decision served the Town’s important governmental interests in aesthetics and traffic safety in a manner that was narrowly tailored to serve those interests, (3) the decision does not unreasonably burden the Church’s right to practice its religious beliefs, to practice free speech, or to use its property and finally, that the Town has not treated the Church differently from any other similarly situated landowner.

In reaching these legal conclusions the Court said the Town’s regulation of electronic signs did not substantially burden more speech than necessary, especially because the Church could communicate its religious messages using a manually changeable sign. 

Considering these conclusions, the court found that the Church’s contention that it should be free from the effect of the Town’s electronic sign ordinance amounts to a demand, not for a level playing field, but instead for a right to be treated differently from all other private landowners. Neither the state and federal constitutions nor RLUIPA requires this result.

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*This case summary was mostly written by Christopher L. Northrup, Principal Planner, New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning