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Inside the Supreme Court case that saved door-to-door missionary work

Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses challenging the rules for door-to-door missionaries in Stratton, Ohio

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

As Jehovah’s Witnesses return to some forms of public ministry more than two years after the pandemic put them on hold, they’re marking the 20-year anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling that protected the right to share messages door to door.

On June 17, 2002, the court ruled against a small Ohio town’s restrictions on door knocking, deciding that efforts to make religious missionaries, political canvassers and others obtain permits violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

“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,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion.

The decision sent a message to government officials trying to limit unpopular or controversial public expression, said Frederick Gedicks, a law professor at Brigham Young University. He added that the case also showed why it’s important to speak up in defense of constitutional rights, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have repeatedly done.

“Often, our practices don’t live up to our ideals. The Witnesses are some of the folks who expose that. Through this case, they forced (the country) to live up to the ideals of the freedom of speech clause,” he said.

Pushing back against permits

The 2002 case centered on the village of Stratton, Ohio, which had fewer than 300 residents at the time the restrictions were put in place. But it was clear from the beginning that the battle in the Buckeye State had national implications, said Paul Polidoro, who argued against the policy in front of the Supreme Court.

Throughout the 20th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other door-to-door missionaries had faced burdensome permitting requirements in communities large and small. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, support for such restrictions seemed to be picking up, Polidoro said.

“There was a heightened concern about security. The government wanted to know ... who was in their community going from door to door,” he said.

A Supreme Court brief filed in support of the Jehovah’s Witnesses by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlined how difficult it could be to navigate anti-solicitation laws. Depending on the town you were in, you might have to provide anything from character witnesses to fingerprints to $25 in cash to gain the right to go door to door.

Stratton did not charge for permits, but it did require salespeople, missionaries and essentially anyone else interested in visiting villagers, including trick-or-treaters, to preregister with the mayor’s office. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who challenged the policy said the process infringed on multiple parts of the First Amendment.

“A citizen shouldn’t have to go to the government to ask permission to go to their neighbor” to raise a concern or share what they believe, Polidoro said.

A big Supreme Court win

To Polidoro and others, the lawsuit was about more than defending constitutional rights. They also saw it as an act of faith.

“We believe Christ Jesus gave us a command to preach the good news. From a religious perspective, it’s offensive to go to man to ask permission to spread the message of the kingdom of God,” Polidoro said.

Philip Brumley, another member of the legal team, said the attorneys prayed together regularly as the case worked its way through the courts.

“Our hearts were involved in this. We prayed about it many, many, many times,” he said.

Some of those prayers were pleas for guidance after the Jehovah’s Witnesses lost in the lower courts. At both the district and circuit levels, judges sided with Stratton officials, ruling that most elements of the policy could remain in place.

“The district court said ... the ordinance was constitutionally acceptable and the 6th Circuit agreed,” Polidoro said.

After another failed dialogue with village leaders, the Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to the Supreme Court. They argued that Stratton’s rules interfered with religious freedom and the right to anonymous political speech; the justices agreed to consider the latter concern.

What Brumley remembers best about oral arguments 20 years later is the calm that washed over him after one of the justices cracked a joke at the policymakers’ expense.

“That’s when I thought, ‘I think we’re going to win. I think we’ve got this,’” he said.

Four months after oral arguments, the court issued an 8-1 decision against the permit rules. It said Stratton’s ordinance unlawfully interfered with both anonymous and spontaneous speech and did little to address security concerns.

“It seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations,” Stevens wrote for the majority.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was among the faith groups and other organizations that applauded the ruling.

“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 a church spokesman at the time, according to the Deseret News.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the law

As Gedicks noted, the Stratton case was not the first time Jehovah’s Witnesses brought a First Amendment case all the way to the Supreme Court. They were also at the center of high-profile battles over saluting the flag, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and holding religious services in public.

“Their fingerprints are all over the early development of freedom of speech and freedom of religion doctrine,” Gedicks said.

Brumley agreed that his faith group has been involved in a variety of important cases. However, he emphasized that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t set out to start legal fights.

“We don’t look for a fight. But we don’t want our rights eroded, so when there’s a confrontation, we have to stand up and fight,” he said.

The goal is to follow Jesus’ lead and preach “the good news,” not to wind up in court, said Robert Hendriks, U.S. national spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the Stratton case shows that sometimes a lawsuit is the only way to preserve important ministry work.

“We love what we do. We love meeting our neighbors,” he said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world resumed some forms of public ministry earlier this month after focusing on virtual witnessing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church has not yet resumed its door-to-door missionary work, Hendriks said.