Jehovah’s Witnesses mark next week the 20th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court ruling that upheld their right to knock on doors and share their faith without obtaining government permission.
The 8-1 decision in Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of NY, Inc. v. the village of Stratton, Ohio, and. Al. struck down a city ordinance that made it a crime to go door-to-door without first completing a registration form and obtaining a permit from the mayor.
The decision was a victory – not just for the organization, but for anyone who wants to knock on a neighbor’s door and talk about religion or politics.
A live webinar highlighting the significance of the ruling is scheduled for Friday, 20 years to the day after it was published. See tinyurl.com/a6bb9wbb.
Witnesses have voluntarily halted door-to-door due to covid-19, but plan to resume once it is safe to do so.
No matter what a member’s profession is, “We are ministers first. We go door to door, we write letters, we make phone calls. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our obligations as Christians,” said Robert Hendriks, the American national spokesman for the Witnesses.
The Way Society, founded in the 1880s, distributed literature to all corners of the globe.
For members of the group, spreading the faith is a fundamental principle, according to Paul Polidoro, the Witnesses’ deputy general counsel and the man who argued the case in court during the closing arguments.
“From a religious point of view, Christ Jesus gave his disciples the command to share the message of the Kingdom with everyone. And so this Good News of hope, comfort and peace is something very important to Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Polidoro said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week.
Commanded in Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all nations”, the Witnesses had made inroads into many communities, but not Stratton.
The Witnesses had no place of worship, known as the Kingdom Hall, in the township, a community of 278 nestled against the Ohio River, a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania state line.
But members of the faith came from nearby Wellsville and knocked on doors, a practice that angered Stratton Mayor John M. Abdalla.
Village officials therefore passed the ordinance, ostensibly to deter crime and protect residents from crooks.
But the law is not limited to door-to-door sellers or commercial speech. It covered a wide range of activities, including religious and political speeches.
Abdalla denied that the measure targeted the Witnesses, who had offered to bypass any house displaying a “No Solicitation” sign.
The order – which had the support of the State of Ohio and the National League of Cities – was largely upheld by the lower courts, but it failed to impress the nine people sitting on the high court. from the country.
During the pleadings of February 26, 2002, they sometimes seemed incredulous.
Abraham Cantor, the attorney representing Stratton, told judges the order targeted “solicitors, peddlers and those who go door to door for a cause.”
But it also covered many other people, the judges were quick to note.
“Well, how about trick-or-treaters? Do they have to get a license,” Judge Sandra Day O’Connor asked, sparking laughter in the courtroom.
Somehow, Cantor managed to dodge the question.
But Polidoro, the attorney representing the Witnesses, came around to talk about it, telling O’Connor that in the language Stratton adopted, “tricksters during Halloween are mentioned, so they’re encompassed by the ordinance.”
Throughout the closing arguments, Cantor was peppered with questions — and laughter, which erupted 11 times, according to the official court transcript. See tinyurl.com/ycxjs25n.
Would young people be required to get a license to sell Girl Scout cookies, a judge has asked?
“Yes, Girl Scouts would be covered,” Cantor replied.
“Or Christmas carolers? a judge asked for a follow-up.
“Or how about borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor,” asked another.
Cantor said sugar loans would be exempt.
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS SPEECH
Antonin Scalia noted that the ordinance not only restricted commercial speech, but also political and religious speech.
“Do you know of another case of ours [the Supreme Court] which even involved an ordinance of this magnitude, which involves solicitation, not asking for money, not selling goods, but even, you know, “I want to talk about Jesus Christ”, or “I want to talk about environmental protection? ‘ Have we had a case like that?” he asked. “I don’t even know of such cases, for more than two centuries.”
On June 17, 2002, the Supreme Court rendered its decision. Judge John Paul Stevens, writing on behalf of the majority, said “door knocking a plea misdemeanor without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violates the First Amendment.”
“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 speech daily public, a citizen must first inform the government of his desire to speak to his neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.”
Only Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented and argued that the order placed “at most a negligible burden on door-to-door communication.”
According to Josh McDaniel, director of the Religious Freedom Clinic at Harvard Law School, the decision had a “tremendous impact” on free speech for all.
“Stratton is an important but underappreciated decision because it affects citizens across the country without us realizing it. The case recognized that the First Amendment protects our right to cross the street and ring the doorbell. our neighbor to talk about everything from religion to political candidates to issues affecting our neighborhood,” he said in an email. “Without this ruling, going door to door without first getting government approval could be a criminal offence.”
Jason Scott Smith, an Arkansas Witness who has shared his faith for more than 35 years, said Stratton “has enabled more than 13,000 Arkansas Witnesses to continue to do so, as the congregation of the first century,” adding, “This decision has brought great joy to all ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Arkansas and the United States.
The decision had an effect on every faithful witness.
Each of them is committed to evangelism – even members of the organization’s legal department.
When asked if church attorneys were required to go door to door like everyone else, Polidoro said the Bible commands all witnesses to share their faith.
“We are all ministers first. Our obligation is to Jehovah God, so it is a privilege for us personally to go door to door,” he said.
Phillip Brumley, the group’s general counsel, described the task as a privilege, not a chore.
“It’s not so much that we have to do it, we have to do it,” he said.
“I had the privilege of helping seven [people get] until the baptism and they went out of door-to-door work. When I look at them, there’s still one in my congregation, boy, there’s just a feeling of joy,” Brumley said. “I know what his life was like before he knew Jehovah and Jesus. And I know what his life is like today. And I’m like, ‘Wow, I played a little part in helping her figure these things out,'” he said.
The audio of the pleadings is here: tinyurl.com/3nbsw83x.
The court decision is here: tinyurl.com/ye28tc8n.