WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday that local governments cannot require missionaries, or anyone else who wants to speak their mind, to obtain permits before visiting people door-to-door.
The case was brought by the Jehovah's Witnesses against Stratton, Ohio. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying the case had the potential to halt, in large part, its own door-to-door missionary work.
The LDS Church had argued that a growing number of cities nationally appear to be trying to curtail religious tracting by requiring solicitation permits, severely limiting allowed hours for contact or otherwise restricting door-to-door canvassing.
In an official statement Monday morning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' leadership applauded the Supreme Court's decision.
"We are gratified that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the important First Amendment right to share religious belief, thereby expanding the right of choice," said church spokesman Michael Otterson.
Stratton, and other cities with such ordinances, argued that requiring solicitation permits helps protect residents' privacy against unwanted visitors and against fraud by criminals who might pose as solicitors.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that "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 public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so."
He added, "A law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition."
That reverses decisions of lower courts, which had upheld the Stratton ordinance.
The only dissenter was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who argued the decision "renders local governments largely impotent to address the very real safety threat that canvassers pose."
He noted, for example, that a recent murder of two Dartmouth College professors in Hanover, N.H., resulted after two teenagers claiming to be taking a poll were allowed into the professors' home, and then stabbed the professors to death.
However, Stevens wrote for the majority that "it seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations not covered by the ordinance."
Stevens also wrote that the majority did not think much of Stratton's assertion that permits, given only to solicitors who agree to honor "no solicitation" signs, would help much to prevent unwanted knocks on the door.
"The annoyance caused by an uninvited knock on the front door is the same whether or not the visitor is armed with a permit," he wrote.
The court ruled that cities do have a right to balance such things as privacy and law enforcement with free speech in regulating canvassing but said the ordinance Stratton used was far too imbalanced. It said it could ban neighbors from knocking on each others' doors to talk politics or even possibly ban trick-or-treaters.
The court said requiring permits also improperly eliminates "anonymous speech" that it feels is important for some pamphleteers and causes. It said it also improperly eliminates "spontaneous speech" by making people wait for a permit before visits.
In a brief filed in the case, the LDS Church said it has found in the past decade "a drastic surge in the number and severity of anti-solicitation laws that are being applied to religious proselyting."
For example, it said in Mundelin, Ill., missionaries have been required to apply for a license to proselyte 30 days before they intend to do it. It costs $10. It allows proselyting for a total of only seven days a year, including one weekend. Missionaries must also provide two photos, two references, driver's license number and Social Security number.
In Watervliet, N.Y., missionaries have been required to notify police each day where they intend to proselyte. They may obtain a two-month permit to allow solicitation. But proselyting door-to-door is not allowed on weekends or after 7 p.m., when most people are home.
The church also said that in Dover, N.J., solicitation permits cost $25 and may take 10 days to obtain. Missionaries must be fingerprinted. They may not proselyte after 5 p.m. or on weekends.
The church's brief argued, "They are representative of a pattern which is developing across the country in which numerous other municipalities are seeking to severely curtail all forms of door-to-door contacting, including religious proselyting."
The LDS brief had also said, "For the church to carry out its religious mission, it is critical that missionaries be able to proselyte . . . without first having to comply with burdensome regulations that impose prior restraints on religious expression."
Contributing: Jody Genessy.