Court Strikes Down Curb on Visits by Jehovah's Witnesses

New York Times/June 18, 2002
By Linda Greenhouse

Washington -- People have the right to go door to door to advocate for religious, political or other noncommercial causes without first getting the government's permission, the Supreme Court ruled today in a lopsided constitutional victory for the ministry of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The 8-to-1 decision struck down a Stratton, Ohio, ordinance that made it a crime for any canvasser or solicitor to pay an uninvited visit on any of the 278 residents for the purpose of promoting or explaining any cause without providing identification and obtaining a permit from the mayor's office. The village interpreted "canvassers" to include Jehovah's Witnesses, with whom the mayor, John M. Abdalla, had long had a tense relationship, and "cause" to include their door-to-door ministry.

While drawing on a series of Supreme Court precedents that found constitutional protection for the nonconformist views of the Jehovah's Witnesses - who refuse to salute the American flag, for example - the decision today was not limited to religious expression. In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that the ordinance appeared to apply to neighbors ringing one another's doorbells to solicit support for political candidates or improved public services.

"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society," Justice Stevens said, "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."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was the lone dissenter. He cited a series of recent crimes, including the murder of a Dartmouth University faculty couple by two teenagers who gained entry to the couple's home by claiming to be conducting a survey, in arguing that the Stratton ordinance was a valid approach to crime control.

"The Constitution does not require that Stratton first endure its own crime wave before it takes measures to prevent crime," Justice Rehnquist said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the "crime prevention justification" the chief justice invoked in support of the ordinance was "not a strong one" because the village itself had not relied on it. Stratton argued that the ordinance, adopted in 1998, was justified by the need to protect residents' privacy and deter fraud, mentioning crime only in passing.

"I can only conclude that if the village of Stratton thought preventing burglaries and violent crimes was an important justification for this ordinance, it would have said so," Justice Breyer said.

Although the scale of the case was small, involving a village on the Ohio River and a 59-member Jehovah's Witnesses congregation from a nearby town, its themes and implications were large, reflected in briefs filed by national organizations.

For some, the important theme was not so much the actual restraint on speech as the value the court placed on anonymous speech. Two recent Supreme Court decisions upholding the right of political canvassers and pamphleteers to remain anonymous have alarmed supporters of campaign finance disclosure requirements.

The decision today, Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, No. 00-1737, found the identification requirement of the Stratton ordinance to be one of its constitutional flaws. At the same time, Justice Stevens suggested, although rather obliquely, that the earlier decisions were limited in their application and did not stand for a broad principle that no disclosure can be required in the campaign finance context.

Many cities and towns have ordinances regulating commercial solicitation, and those were not affected by the ruling today. Justice Stevens suggested that the Stratton ordinance might well have been constitutional had the village applied it "only to commercial activities and the solicitation of funds."

A brief from the Mormon Church told the court that restrictions on religious proselytizing were increasingly common. The brief asked the court to rule that religious expression had a "preferred status" under the First Amendment.

But the court's treatment of the ordinance as a broad restriction on advocacy made it unnecessary for the justices to reopen their debate over whether religious activities should be exempt from generally applicable regulations.

Jehovah's Witnesses who regularly visited Stratton refused to seek a permit on the ground that their authority to preach derived from the Bible and not the government. Along with the denomination's Brooklyn-based national organization, they challenged the ordinance and lost, both in Federal District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati.

In his majority opinion, Justice Stevens noted that Supreme Court decisions in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses going back to the 1930's and 1940's have echoed First Amendment principles. "The value judgment that then motivated a united democratic people fighting to defend those very freedoms from totalitarian attack is unchanged," he said. "It motivates our decision today."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not sign the majority opinion, instead concurring separately in an opinion by Justice Scalia that was oddly churlish in tone.

Justice Scalia responded to a comment by Justice Stevens that there were "patriotic citizens" who might "prefer silence to speech licensed by a petty official." That was a "fairy-tale category" of patriots, Justice Scalia said, adding: "If our free-speech jurisprudence is to be determined by the predicted behavior of such crackpots, we are in a sorry state indeed."

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