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Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton (2001)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

The Village of Stratton, Ohio, had an ordinance which required that anyone who wanted to solicit at private homes was required to obtain a permit - the purpose of this was to prevent fraud on the part of those going door-to-dooor. According to the law, those covered by this requirement were "canvassers, solicitors, peddlers, [or] hawkers" who visited any private residence in the Village for the "purposes of advertising, promoting, selling and/or explaining any product, service, organization or cause." These people had to fill out a form which required information like why they were canvassing, which residences they intend to canvass, how long they intend to canvass, and any "other information concerning the Registrant[s] and [their] business or purpose as may be reasonably necessary to accurately describe the nature of the privilege desired."

The applicant would receive a permit as long as one of the following conditions were not met: they (1) failed to complete the Registration Form, (2) provided fraudulent information on the form, (3) made false or fraudulent statements or misrepresentations while canvassing, (4) violated any other local, state, or federal laws, (5) trespassed while canvassing, or (6) ceased to possess the qualifications required to obtain a Solicitation Permit.

Other conditions of solicitation included: no solicitation except between the hours of 9:00am and 5:00pm, no solicitation at homes where the owner of had filed a "No Solicitation Form" with the Mayor's Office and no solicitation at homes where the owner had posted a "No Solicitation Sign" on the property. Failure to follow these rules could result in a 4th degree misdemeanor.

A congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses challenged this ordinance, claiming that it was unconstitutional both "on its face" and "as applied" to them. A District Court found that most of their arguments were without merit, however the court did require that the 5PM ending time be extended to all daylight hours and that the Village make it easier to answer the question about which homes would be visited. The Jehovah's Witnesses appealed to the 6th Circuit Court.

Court Decision

The 6th Circuit Court agreed with the District Court and held that the Jehovah's Witnesses simply didn't have a case. First, the Court held that the ordinance was "content neutral and of general applicability" - in other words, that it was not aimed directly at any particular type of content (like religious messages) and that it was not aimed at any particular group (like religious speakers). Thus, the ordinance was subject to a lower level of scrutiny than it might otherwise be - when the government targets a specific group or a specific kind of content for restrictions, they have a much higher burden of proof in order to demonstrate that they are justified in doing it. Here, however, the burden of proof for the state was deemed to be lower.

The Court also found that the ordinance was not unconstitutional unconstitutional both "on its face" and "as applied" to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The difference between the two is important to understand, and the Court quoted a Supreme Court decision to explain it:

"If a statute is unconstitutional as applied, the State may continue to enforce the statute in different circumstances where it is not unconstitutional, but if a statute is unconstitutional on its face, the State may not enforce the statute under any circumstances."

Facial challenges normally argue that a law is "overbroad" and "vague." The former means that it restricts a substantial amount of activity which is normally legal and constitutional. The latter means that it is unclear to the average citizen just what is and is not permitted. The 6th Circuit Court found that the ordinance was not overbroad because registering does not reveal a person's identity much more than physically appearing at someone's house. It was also found that the ordinance was not vague because the meaning of the relevant terms in the ordinance are all very clear.

Facial challenges have a higher burden of proof because they try to argue that no part of a law is valid and require a more extreme remedy: tossing the law aside. The "as applied" challenges, however, have a lower burden of proof - but the 6th Circuit Court did not find that the Jehovah's Witnesses managed even this. According to the Witnesses, there is no governmental interest in protecting the people from annoyance and the ordinance would not protect citizens from fraud, especially from the Witnesses themselves. According to the Court, however:

The ordinance promotes the Village's interest in protecting the privacy of its residents by creating additional deterrents for canvassers, including Jehovah's Witnesses, who are considering ignoring a resident's wishes and canvassing the resident's home. A Jehovah's Witness is more likely to respect the resident's wishes not to be canvassed when a criminal penalty--albeit a light penalty--is connected to such conduct in addition to the threat of civil action. Thus, the penalty attached to canvassing the house of a resident with a No Solicitation Sign more effectively promotes the Village's interest. The ordinance's registration requirements also likely deter Jehovah's Witnesses from canvassing homes with No Solicitation Signs and forms because they are aware that the Village now has information--name, address, organization or cause--helpful in apprehending someone who ignores a resident's wishes.

With regards to the issue of fraud, the Court wrote:

The Village's interest in preventing fraud would also be achieved less effectively absent the ordinance. Absent a registration requirement, the Village has no way of assessing whether canvassers are in fact affiliated with an organization such as Jehovah's Witnesses or are instead perpetrators of fraud using a Jehovah's Witnesses claim as cover. Requiring the individuals to identify themselves as having a relationship with the organization provides the Village with information helpful in making this assessment. Consequently, the ordinance better equips the Village in its attempt to turn away perpetrators posing as Jehovah's Witnesses. Moreover, the requirements go further than anti-fraud laws in deterring such individuals from committing fraud because they know the Village has information that would make it easier to apprehend them were they to do so.



Significance

Was this decision a blow against religious liberties? The Supreme Court will rule on it, so we have to wait and see what the final outcome will be. On the one hand, it may see to some that the government has no business in getting permits for people canvassing door-to-door. On the other hand, the government already has the power to require permits for large public gatherings and demonstrations - so why is this any different?

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