Friday, July 14, 2006

Door-to-Door Soul Service

Trying to close my eyes before takeoff, a man sitting behind is shouting into his cell phone. Impossible to drown out his overbearing voice, I soon gather from the conversation that he is a religious man and speaking to a police officer somewhere about missionaries for his church. Praying a flight attendant would insist he turn his phone off, he continued arguing about their rights to solicit religious information and pamphlets door-to-door in this particular neighborhood. “It is part of our first amendment right,” he demanded. I wish there was a right to peace and quiet!

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled for a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witness and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, a nonprofit publisher of church literature, in striking down the ordinance regulating uninvited peddling and solicitation. The ordinance had required Jehovah’s Witnesses or other door-to-door advocates for religious or political causes to get a permit. The Jehovah’s Witnesses countered that the ordinance restricts an array of First Amendment freedoms, including of freedom of speech, press, association and religion.

The court had granted certiorari to decide the question: “Does a municipal ordinance that requires one to obtain a permit prior to engaging in the door-to-door advocacy of a political cause and to display upon demand, the permit, which contains one’s name, violate the First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse?”

Ruling in an 8-1 decision, the court looked to pass precedent in Murdock v Pennsylvania when then Court noted that “hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism-as old as the history of printing presses. This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits.” First, just because it is “age-old” does not make it right. Second, printing presses and therefore, newspapers, are optional. You CHOOSE to have a newspaper delivered to your door. Third, going to someone’s door and basically putting that person in a position of discourse is completely different from that person choosing to go to a church and engage in the discussion. Plus, this ordinance does not restrict public areas like stores, street corners, restaurants and parks.

Although the petitioners (Watchtower Bible, et al) did not challenge the procedure by which a resident my prohibit solicitation, it still puts the burden on the resident. In order to bar people from door-to-your-door canvassing, you must file a “No Solicitation Registration Form” with the mayor AND post a “No Solicitation” sign on your property. Not to mention, having to do this defaces their property. Although not a permanent structure, an unsightly one at best. And what is the solicitor is blind? Does the “No Solicitation” still apply to them? After all, the law states “and” which means a property owner needs to do both.

The lone high court dissenter was Chief Justice Rehnquist. I always knew I liked this guy! In the decision, he affirmed, “The town had little reason to suspect that the negligible burden of having to obtain a permit runs afoul of the First Amendment. For over 60 years, we have categorically stated that a permit requirement for door-to-door canvassers, which gives no discretion to the issuing authority, is constitutional. The District Court and Court of Appeals, relying on our cases, upheld the ordinance. The Court today, however, abruptly changes course and invalidates the ordinance. It is not clear what test the Court is applying, or under which part of that indeterminate test the ordinance fails. Under a straightforward application of the applicable First Amendment framework, however, the ordinance easily passes muster.”

The ordinance does not bar people from canvassing but simply allows a bit more security and accountability. Rehnquist also looked to this point, “More than half a century ago we recognized that canvassers, “whether selling pots or distributing leaflets, may lessen the peaceful enjoyment of a home,” and that “burglars frequently pose as canvassers, either in order that they may have a pretense to discover whether a house is empty and hence ripe for burglary, or for the purpose of spying out the premises in order that they may return later.” Martin v. City of Struthers.”

In striking the Struthers ordinance down, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “While door to door distributors of literature may be either a nuisance or a blind for criminal activities, they may also be useful members of society engaged in the dissemination of ideas in accordance with the best tradition of free discussion.” And what if you do not want to be a part of the discussion? I know you can just not answer your door but what if you were outside in your front yard when a canvasser stopped in? Are you forced to go into your house in order to not be bothered? The question arises of were does private domain start?

An interesting side note: In Justice Stevens opinion, he notes that “Although Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider themselves to be “solicitors” because they make no charge for their literature or their teaching…They also explained at trial that they did not apply for a permit because they derive their authority to preach from Scripture. “For us to seek a permit from a municipality to preach we feel would almost be an insult to God…””

When you need an answer, just say it in the name of “God”.


George T said...

While I find it very charming that someone thinks enough of me to try and save my soul, I think most would agree that those who wish to seek God have already done so. Unfortunately for us, those religiously minded people still feel the need to go out and spread the word. I am pretty sure that in this day and age, the prophets would simply throw up a web page, toss some infomercials on, get an 800 number, and wait for the souls to roll in. Any Deity in their right mind would balk at the idea of door to door religious evangelism in modern times. This is one of the more annoying aspects of organized spirituality.

David said...

Good question. The naiive interpretation is (and rightly should be), private domain begins on my property.

If a person intrudes on my property with clear intent to harm, I can dispatch him with equal force and be covered under the law to that extent.

Seems fair that if someone comes to my property to disseminate ideas that are intellectually or spiritually harmful, I am within my rights to dispatch that person with malice and should not be required to file for petitions and/or post signs.

Shouldn't I be entitled to use the argument that they violate MY religion? My religion states that their ideas are contrary to God as I understand him. They don't have to get a permit to transmit, why should I to prevent reception of their ideas?

BTW, a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to warding off JW's is the display of decorations for holidays: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, the American flag, Halloween, Birthdays, etc.

No JW's arrive at your house when these are up on your property. Seems their “evangelism” does not extend to those who are "lost" according to THEIR estimation.

Interesting, as even a base-level study of scriptures and gospels will tell you that God loves us all, and does not want us to be “lost”.

Nice cult. Got any Kool-Aid?