Police slam doors, church gripes

Taunton Gazette, Massachusetts/June 26, 2006
By Gerry Tuoti

Raynham - Jehovah's Witnesses claim a Raynham police policy violates federal law by interfering with their religious obligation to go door to door to perform public ministry.

Police require anyone doing door-to-door solicitations or sales to notify them beforehand.

"We certainly don't do it for any religious or ethnic reason," Police Chief Louis J. Pacheco said. "We do it for everyone. I don't care what you're selling."

In a May 30 letter to the Board of Selectmen, Paul Polidoro, the associate counsel for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, said several Jehovah's Wintesses have complained to him about the policy. He sent a similar letter in 2004.

"Our ministers have informed us of several recent incidents where your police officers have advised our local ministers that they must provide Raynham police with a prior notification telephone call before they can engage in their public ministry," Polidoro wrote. "We trust that this incident was the result of a lack of communication between the town of Raynham and its police department. We also trust, given the clearly established federal law, that there will be no further obstruction of the public ministry of Jehovah's Witnesses by Raynham police officials."

Polidoro could not be reached for comment, and no one else from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society Legal Office returned calls by press time.

The police often get calls from concerned residents when they see someone walking up to houses in the neighborhood, Pacheco said.

"They do it during the daytime, and in a town like Raynham, half the houses are empty during the day," Pacheco said.

When they get calls reporting a suspicious person, the police have to send out cruisers to make sure the person isn't a burglar, he said. If police know about a door-to-door solicitation beforehand, they can better assure homeowners. This eliminates the need to dispatch a cruiser and reduces the likelihood of police officers bothering public ministers and salespeople.

"We never have any problems with the people out there doing their business - whether it's selling vacuum cleaners, educational products or religion," Pacheco said. "But the problem is that bad guys can use them as cover."

Selectmen Chairman Donald McKinnon sided with Pacheco.

"Citizens have every right to say, 'Who is this individual?'" McKinnon said. "The Police Department and citizens have every right to question their identity."

Polidoro's letter referred to a 2002 case, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the policy in Stratton, Ohio, of requiring door-to-door solicitors to fill out permits was unconstitutional.

Pacheco said he was not familiar with the case.

"We definitely don't want to infringe on people's rights, but in the law enforcement business there's a trade-off between individual rights and public safety," he said. "We have to balance these."

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