Freedom of religion – Part 2
• Key point 14-01.The courts have affirmed the right of persons to disseminate religious literature and doctrine on a door-to-door basis, and in public places. This right may be limited in order to preserve public safety, health, order, and convenience. Strict safeguards, however, must attend any limitations.
The Right to Witness
* The United States Supreme Court ruled that a city ordinance requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses and other persons to obtain and display a permit before engaging in door-to-door witnessing violated the first amendment. A city ordinance prohibited “canvassers” and others from “going in and upon” private residential property for the purpose of promoting any “cause” without first having obtained a “solicitation permit.” Residents may prohibit solicitation even by holders of permits by posting a “No Solicitation” sign on their property. Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to obtain a solicitation permit because they derive their authority to preach from Scripture, and to seek a permit to preach from the city would an “insult to God.” They claim to follow the example of the Apostle Paul, teaching “publicly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). They take literally the mandate of the Scriptures, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15. In doing so they believe that they are obeying a commandment of God. Moreover, because they lack significant financial resources, the ability to proselytize is seriously diminished by regulations that burden their efforts to canvass door-to-door.
The Supreme Court concluded that the city ordinance, as applied to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, violated the first amendment guaranty of free speech. The city claimed that the permit requirement was justified by the legitimate interests of preventing fraud and crime, and protecting residents’ privacy. The Court conceded that cities have a legitimate interest in protecting these interests, but in this case they went too far. It observed,
Central to our conclusion that the ordinance does not pass first amendment scrutiny is that it is not tailored to the city’s stated interests. Even if the interest in preventing fraud could adequately support the ordinance insofar as it applies to commercial transactions and the solicitation of funds, that interest provides no support for its application to [church members], to political campaigns, or to enlisting support for unpopular causes. The city, however, argues that the ordinance is nonetheless valid because it serves the two additional interests of protecting the privacy of the resident and the prevention of crime. With respect to the former, it seems clear that the ordinance, which provides for the posting of “No Solicitation” signs … coupled with the resident’s unquestioned right to refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors, provides ample protection for the unwilling listener …. With respect to the latter, it seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations not covered by the ordinance ….
The Court concluded, “The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns. It is offensive—not only to the values protected by the first amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so …. A law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, 122 S.Ct. 2080 (2002).
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