- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

A city and a church clashed at the Supreme Court yesterday over a law that the church says requires "a license to speak to another citizen at that citizen's home."
Most justices mocked the scope of the Stratton, Ohio, law, and two said the law is broader than any in the nation's history, requiring permits for everyone from roving evangelists to political activists even Girl Scouts selling cookies and Halloween trick-or-treaters.
Lawyer Paul D. Polidoro opened the hearing with a 20-second spiel typical of what Jehovah's Witnesses say in following the apostle Paul's call to spread the Gospel "publicly and from house to house."
"It is a criminal act" to say those words in Stratton without a permit, said Mr. Polidoro, attorney for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the Wellsville, Ohio, Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Permits are free and may not be denied to any applicant
"It is also a criminal act to go door to door to say, 'Democracy is wonderful. Please vote next week,'" Mr. Polidoro said. He argued that only residents have the right to ban trespassers and challenged any government interference "in one-on-one intimate conversations on religion and politics."
"Jehovah's Witnesses don't consider themselves solicitors, so they don't abide by 'no solicitation' signs," said city lawyer Abraham Cantor.
"The purpose is to prevent annoyance of the property owner," said the city lawyer, who called the law's unprecedented breadth "a beautiful idea."
Not all justices were convinced.
"You think it's a beautiful idea that I have to ask the government for permission before I can go down the street … and talk about garbage pickup. That's astounding," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said
Mr. Cantor said the city uses its police power to protect privacy and to prevent crime.
Mr. Polidoro maintained Stratton's 1998 law reflects Mayor John M. Abdalla's 20-year effort to bar the Jehovah's Witness ministry from the city, and said the law is particularly vulnerable because it also covers political viewpoints.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked the most contentious questions. He said no church members tested the law by applying for a permit, suggested the evangelists really were not neighbors and added that the law might deter "con men."
"Show me a thief or rapist who would stop by City Hall to register," Justice Antonin Scalia retorted.
The vigor of Jehovah's Witnesses in discussing Bible issues and distributing Watchtower literature generates hostility in many places, and the Supreme Court used a 1940 case involving that church to apply First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom to the states for the first time.
Stratton's permit application requires a name and address, despite a 1995 high court ruling in another Ohio case that political pamphleteers and speakers may remain anonymous.
Several justices noted identification is not verified, which nullifies the law's stated purpose of identifying solicitors in advance so they might be tracked down if they commit crimes.
"What is most troubling to me is that you have to make a disclosure to the mayor," said Justice Kennedy, who noted that Ohio's open-records law would make evangelists' identities a matter of public knowledge.
"We do not believe that anyone needs to go to the government for permission to speak to the neighbors," Mr. Polidoro said. "Jehovah's Witnesses have a long memory of what they've suffered … to speak the Good News."
Justice Scalia acidly noted that the law calls conversations a privilege. "You're saying this thing is OK because it addresses only communication?" he said with heavy sarcasm, amused that a lawyer would make such a claim.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide