In an interview published just after his death last month, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said: "Life is too short to debate with the Jehovah's Witnesses who ring your bell and want to talk for two hours."
Mr. Gould would know. The evolutionary theorist counted the sect among his fiercest critics. And apparently at least some Supreme Court justices share his sentiment, along with millions of American householders. But that doesn't mean the court's ruling this week--the one reasserting the constitutional right of Witnesses to annoy their neighbors with door-to-door proselytizing--was wrong.
Monday's 8-1 decision struck down a Stratton, Ohio, ordinance requiring anyone going door-to-door to register with authorities and get a permit. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens was unequivocal. "It is offensive," he wrote, "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."
The court called the law, which covered both political and religious canvassing, a dramatic departure from our "constitutional tradition." Indeed, that tradition owes a lot to fringe groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose litigious pedigree dates back six decades and includes more than two-dozen Supreme Court rulings. Those precedents pepper the latest decision, and even the lone dissenter, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, didn't deny that the Stratton ordinance posed First Amendment problems.
I was raised a Witness and left voluntarily in my teens. I cringe at the ever-growing case law that links this particular group to these particular constitutional protections. The theory is sound, but the reality is maddening. The Witnesses themselves blend qualities of zealotry and authoritarianism at odds with the ideals of a democratic society.
The Witnesses, who claim six million members world-wide, are overseen by the Governing Body--a small group of "anointed" men who profess an ability to channel instructions from God. They hold complete doctrinal authority and brook no dissent from the rank and file. (Although there have long been many blacks in the rank and file, only recently have they been allowed into the Governing Body.) Independent thinking is forbidden. Church members are required to turn in dissenters. Conformity is enforced with threats of shunning. That so much First Amendment precedent is put in the service of these pseudo-theocratic dictators is unsettling, even if it is necessary.
Preoccupied with apocalyptic dates, Witnesses are criticized for changing course as their predictions go unrealized. But wrongheadedness is a part of their tradition. The sect began in Pennsylvania in the 1870s under Charles Taze Russell, who abandoned the Adventist movement after a prediction of Christ's second coming failed. Borrowing heavily from the teachings of Adventists and other date-obsessed sects, Russell formed his own movement, which would later adopt the name "Jehovah's Witnesses."
Russell pointed to 1914 as the year that God would set up his kingdom on earth, displace all governments and destroy everyone except "Russellites" (as they were known at the time), who would inherit a paradise on earth and live forever. Russell died disappointed in 1916, and his successors have changed dates and predictions many times since.
Yet when members come knocking, the message they deliver is essentially the same. Join us or perish: The world as we know it will end any day now, and only Jehovah's Witnesses will survive to live eternally in an earthly paradise.
Personally, I favor a wait-and-see approach, and I take comfort in knowing that at least two justices share my queasiness. A separate concurrence in Monday's ruling, written by Antonin Scalia and joined by Clarence Thomas, had just the right tone of resignation. "If our free-speech jurisprudence is to be determined by the predicted behavior of such crackpots, we are in a sorry state indeed."