- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide if Jehovah's Witnesses and therefore other religious or political groups had a First Amendment right to anonymously state religious beliefs door to door.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York and the Wellsville, Ohio, Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses seek to overturn the requirement in Stratton, Ohio, that solicitors of all types obtain free permits before knocking on doors to speak their piece.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in an Ohio school-tax case (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission) that the state's ban on anonymous handbills violated the First Amendment.

Mayor John M. Abdalla and Abraham Cantor, attorney for the village, argued that the church group never raised the anonymity issue in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and shouldn't be allowed to do so now. The justices brushed aside that objection and added the case to its docket for decision by June.

The mayor said no one was ever denied the permits, which his "close-knit community" adopted to protect a vulnerable elderly population from "scams and frauds." He said no Jehovah's Witness ever requested a permit.

The 6th Circuit ruled the village ordinance applied to all solicitors, not just evangelists "sharing Bible thoughts," so it may be imposed across the board under the 1990 Supreme Court Smith decision upholding any law "that is content-neutral and of general applicability."

Watchtower attorney Paul D. Polidoro called the law an "unfortunate echo to a prejudiced past of Stratton's mayor bragging that people move into his village because they know they will be free from the message of Jehovah's Witnesses."

Mr. Polidoro claims that officials of the village at the Ohio River border with West Virginia resisted the ministry for more than 20 years.

The religious organization's legal team complained that the permit law itself unconstitutionally interfered with religious practice, but the justices refused to review that issue. The court agreed only to decide the separate argument that requiring permits and forcing advocates to show them would disclose the solicitor's identity.

"[That would] violate the First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse," said Mr. Polidoro's petition, citing the McIntyre case.

"There is no constitutional right to anonymity," Mr. Cantor replied.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe proselytizing is a responsibility of each member "in imitation of Jesus himself going from door to door to teach people about his message."

Witnesses face hostility in many communities as they troop into neighborhoods, handing out tracts and sometimes ending sessions by asking for contributions.

In other decisions announced yesterday, the justices:

• Agreed to decide this term if a California killer was wrongly allowed extra time to challenge his conviction, despite the 1996 federal law intended to streamline appeals. At issue is whether Tony Saffold's four-month delay in filing a new state appeal after losing a round should be counted against a one-year deadline applying to all cases.

• Upheld the arrest on cocaine charges of Desarie Overton, whose Toledo home was invaded by police bearing what four dissenting justices called a warrant that was "clearly inadequate under well-established Supreme Court case law." The warrant was signed not by a judge but by a city court clerk.

• Refused to consider an order that Honeywell Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc. keep more employee records as a result of a discrimination lawsuit, to which they complained they were improperly added despite being "innocent third parties."

• Let stand the death sentence given to Daniel Colwell after the mentally ill double murderer took over his defense and taunted jurors to execute him. Colwell, a former college football star and diagnosed schizophrenic, shot a husband and wife in the parking lot of a Georgia Wal-Mart in 1996, then drove to a police station and asked to be electrocuted.

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