Religious Group May Solicit, Supreme Court Rules
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that an ordinance requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses or other door-to-door advocates for religious or political causes to get a permit violates free-speech rights.
The high court ruled for a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, a nonprofit publisher of church literature, in striking down the law regulating uninvited peddling and solicitation.
The justices, by a 8-1 vote, ruled the ordinance in the tiny village of Stratton, Ohio, infringed on the rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith whose members go from house to house speaking about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The decision added to a number of Supreme Court rulings in the 1930s and 1940s that the Jehovah’s Witnesses won on First Amendment issues.
Justice John Paul Stevens said for the court majority that the law, as it applies to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech and the distribution of handbills violated First Amendment free-speech protections.
The law at issue covered “canvassers, solicitors, peddlers (or) hawkers” who go to private homes for the purpose of “advertising, promoting, selling and/or explaining any product, service, organization or cause.”
Individuals first must register with the city, providing their name and address, their cause, why they were canvassing, which homes they intended to go to and how long they planned to solicit.
A permit would be provided unless the mayor determined the applicant failed to complete the form, provided fraudulent information, made false statements or misrepresentations while canvassing, violated any laws or engaged in trespassing.
The permits must be displayed upon demand by any resident.
Individuals were allowed to go door-to-door from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., so long as the owner of a residence had not filed a “No Solicitation Form” with the city and had not posted a “No Solicitation Sign” on the property.
While the “No Solicitation Form” listed several organizations by name, the only religious group cited was the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Stevens said a U.S. appeals court was wrong in upholding the law. He said the high court for more than 50 years has, on First Amendment grounds, invalidated restrictions on door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He said the ordinances applied to a significant number of noncommercial canvassers promoting a wide variety of causes.
Stevens rejected the village’s argument that the ordinance was valid because it protects the privacy of residents and prevents fraud or other types of crime.
He said it seemed unlikely the lack of permit would stop criminals from knocking on doors and there was no evidence of a special crime problem related to such solicitation.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist was the lone dissenter. He said the ruling deprived residents of the degree of “accountability and safety” the permit requirement provided.