WASHINGTON (BP)–An Ohio town ordinance that regulates door-to-door canvassing violates the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 17.
The decision is considered a victory not only for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group that brought the suit, but Christians and others who do unsolicited visitation to homes.
The high court voted 8-1 to reverse a lower court opinion that had upheld a measure adopted in the Village of Stratton, Ohio, that required a permit before a person could go on private property to advocate a cause, sell a product or promote an organization. The ordinance affected religious adherents, political candidates, community groups and salespeople.
“I am delighted that the Supreme Court has chosen to affirm religious liberty and freedom of speech,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Any other decision would have been a disaster for First Amendment freedoms in America.”
The 8-1 vote “is good news … real good news,” Land said. “Hopefully, the 8-1 decision portends more good news to come from this court in the immediate future.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which often clashes with the ERLC and other religious freedom organizations, also welcomed the ruling.
“People who want to talk about their views with others shouldn’t have to ask the government for permission first,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a written statement. “People who are bothered by door-to-door evangelism can always say, ‘No, thanks,’ and shut the door or post a ‘No soliciting’ sign. Heavy-handed government regulations on speech stifle our basic freedoms.”
In the majority opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said the ordinance had a “pernicious effect.”
“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 everyday discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so,” Stevens wrote. “Even if the issuance of permits by the mayor’s office is a ministerial task that is performed promptly and at no cost to the applicant, a law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition.”
Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented, defending Stratton’s interests in “protecting privacy and preventing fraud and crime.” The ordinance is “at most, a negligible burden on door-to-door communication,” he wrote.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, a corporation that coordinates the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, brought suit against Stratton after the ordinance was adopted. Jehovah’s Witnesses, considered a cult by evangelical Christian bodies because of unorthodox teachings on Jesus and salvation, often go door-to-door distributing their publications.
After a federal court ruled in favor of Stratton, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court. The appeals court described the ordinance as “content neutral” and not overly broad.
The Supreme Court agreed to review the appeals court ruling, focusing on whether the ordinance violated a previous high court opinion protecting anonymous pamphleteering and speech. In his opinion, Stevens cited Supreme Court decisions from the 1930s and 1940s in which the justices struck down limitations on “door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering” that involved Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group believes such activity is commanded by their scriptures.
The Stratton ordinance requires an individual to register with the mayor’s office and to explain his cause and reason for home visitation.
The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton.
The high court is expected to release another major church-state opinion before it adjourns for the term. The Zelman v. Simmons-Harris ruling will determine whether a Cleveland, Ohio, program allowing vouchers to be used at religious schools is constitutional. The court is expected to adjourn by the first of July.