Free exercise of religion

In another First Amendment case, this one involving the Free Exercise Clause, the Court reaffirmed rulings made over sixty years ago for the same group, Jehovah's Witnesses. The small Ohio village of Stratton prohibited canvassers from going door-to-door to sell any product or promote any cause without first getting a permit from the mayor's office. Jehovah's Witnesses objected to having to get a permit to carry their message, and sued on First Amendment grounds, claiming that it violated their rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom of the press. The lower courts upheld the provisions, on the grounds that they were content neutral and applied to all individuals and groups. Moreover, the village had a legitimate interest in protecting its residents from fraud and undue annoyance.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed in Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Village of Stratton (2002), and by an 8-1 vote upheld the claims of the Witnesses that any effort to limit or regulate their proselytizing infringed upon their Free Exercise rights. The Court in many ways did little more than reaffirm the principles established in the Jehovah's Witness cases of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943), Schneider v. Town of Irvington (1939) and Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). As Justice Stevens explained, while townships had legitimate interests in preventing fraud or other crimes, ordinances regulating door-to-door solicitation had to be very narrowly drawn in order not to impinge on the religious rights of groups like the witnesses, or other groups who are poorly financed and rely extensively upon this method of communication, including nonreligious groups and individuals.

While the village of Stratton had drawn a content neutral ordinance, it was overly broad, and thus impinged on First Amendment rights. According to Stevens, the ordinance was so broadly written that it could apply to neighbors ringing each other's doorbells "to enlist support for a more efficient garbage collector." A simpler manner for residents to avoid unwanted solicitations would be to post "No Solicitor" signs, which could be enforced by local authorities.


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