Court to hear appeal over restrictions on Jehovah's Witnesses

Monday, October 15, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide if an Ohio town violates the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses by requiring permission from the mayor to canvass neighborhoods.

The Jehovah's Witnesses claim the 3-year-old ordinance in Stratton, Ohio, was designed to limit their ministry. Members of that faith routinely go door-to-door, giving out free literature and recruiting believers.

In the small Ohio River town, people planning solicitations must first divulge their names, addresses for the past five years and the names and addresses of their affiliations. The mayor grants permits, which a homeowner can demand to see.

The ordinance applies to anyone who goes door-to-door, including salesmen and people seeking donations. Violations are misdemeanors.

The issue for the Supreme Court is whether Stratton's restrictions unconstitutionally affect one religious group's activity. The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from promoting religion or favoring one religion over another.

"Are religious ministers engaged in a Scripturally based centuries-old practice of communicating their religious beliefs from door to door constitutionally equivalent to peddlers of merchandise ...?" lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses asked the Supreme Court.

Stratton leaders said that permits are free and no one has ever been denied a permit. The ordinance is reasonable in "weighing the First Amendment rights of canvassers against the right of homeowners to security, privacy and peacefulness in their homes," they told the Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. ruled in 1999 that the town could not limit activity from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as it initially tried to do. He ordered that be changed to reasonable hours, but upheld the permitting process.

The Ohio Jehovah's Witness congregation that had filed suit appealed, along with Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., a nonprofit publisher of church literature.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Supreme Court has not specifically addressed restrictions on door-to-door activity. The appeals court ruled earlier this year that the ordinance did not discriminate because it put the same requirements on all people, regardless of their message or purpose.

The town should not be stopped from "protecting its residents from fraud and undue annoyance in their homes," the court said.

Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses said members cannot anonymously practice their religion in the town.

"More than any other group in the history of American jurisprudence, Jehovah's Witnesses have successfully relied upon this court to safeguard their rights to free speech, free press and freedom of worship against municipal efforts at prohibition or regulation," they told the Supreme Court.

The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., et al. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio, et al., 00-1737.

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