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Supreme Court to weigh restriction on Jehovah’s Witnesses home visits

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if a local government can require members of a religious group to obtain permits that include their names before taking their message door to door.

The justices will review a ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that found an Ohio community could regulate the home visitation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other organizations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group considered a cult by evangelical Christian bodies, challenged the ordinance in Stratton, Ohio, as a violation of the First Amendment rights of both speech and religious expression.

The justices, however, agreed to consider only the question of whether the ordinance infringes on a previous high court ruling protecting anonymous pamphleteering and speech. The justices are expected to hear oral arguments and issue an opinion before their term ends early next summer.

The ordinance applies to people planning to visit residences for the “purposes of advertising, promoting, selling and/or explaining any product, service, organization or cause.” It requires an individual to register with the mayor’s office and to explain his cause and his reason for home visitation. Any Stratton homeowner may file a form with the major saying he does not want to be solicited and may post a sign at his residence to that effect.

The Sixth Circuit upheld a federal court opinion, ruling the ordinance is constitutional because it is narrowly tailored to comply with a government interest.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses argued on appeal that the Sixth Circuit decision clashes with a 1995 Supreme Court opinion rejecting an Ohio law banning the distribution of unsigned political pamphlets, according to The Washington Post.

The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Stratton, Ohio.

Other cases the high court has agreed to rule on during this term include:

— Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which will determine whether a Cleveland, Ohio, program allowing vouchers to be used at religious schools is constitutional. A Sixth Circuit panel upheld a federal judge’s opinion the program violates the separation of church and state, because most of the private schools in which vouchers are used by low-income families are religious ones. The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission supports the school choice program, while the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs opposes it. No date has been set for oral arguments.

— Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which a lower court ruled as unconstitutional the Child Pornography Protection Act, which expanded child pornography bans to include computerized images. Oral arguments are scheduled Oct. 30.

— Ashcroft v. ACLU, wherein a federal appeals court blocked enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, which barred commercial websites from making sexually explicit material available to minors. The justices will hear arguments Nov. 28.

— Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, in which a lower court ruled against an ordinance prohibiting more than one sexually explicit business in the same building. Oral arguments will be Dec. 4.

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