Society & Culture

20 years ago last week, SCOTUS protected religious speech

While Jehovah’s Witnesses have chosen to temporarily suspend their door-to-door ministry due  to the pandemic, their activity was almost permanently banned by one U.S. village in the late  1990s — that is until the United States Supreme Court stepped in with a historic 8-1 decision on  June 17, 2002, declaring the local ordinance unconstitutional. 

Constitutional scholars say the decision has had an outsized impact on the protection of free speech for all, agreeing with Justice Antonin  Scalia’s opinion in the case: “The free-speech claim exempts everybody, thanks to Jehovah’s  Witnesses.” 

The 2002 Supreme Court decision in Watchtower v. Village of Stratton affirmed that a local village  ordinance in Stratton, Ohio, requiring a permit to knock on doors violated the rights of any person  who wanted to engage in free speech with their neighbor, including Jehovah’s Witnesses who  practice door-to-door evangelizing. The Court overturned two lower court rulings that upheld the  ordinance, and thus paved the way for all citizens to maintain open dialogue with their neighbors  on any number of issues including environmental, civic, political or educational. 

“Looking back on the two decades since the decision, it’s clear to see the wide-ranging impact  that Watchtower v. Stratton has had on free speech for all,” said Josh McDaniel, director of the  Religious Freedom Clinic at the Harvard Law School. “This is just the latest of some 50 Supreme Court victories that have helped establish and broaden First Amendment  jurisprudence throughout the last century.”

The village of Stratton became a center of controversy in 1998 after the mayor personally  confronted four Jehovah’s Witnesses as they were driving out of the village after visiting a  resident. Subsequently, the village enacted the ordinance “Regulating Uninvited Peddling and  Solicitation Upon Private Property,” which required anyone wishing to engage in door-to-door  activity to obtain a permit from the mayor or face imprisonment. Jehovah’s Witnesses viewed  this ordinance as an infringement of freedom of speech, free exercise of religion and freedom of  press. Therefore, they brought a lawsuit in federal court after the village refused to modify their  enforcement of this ordinance. 

“Making it a criminal offense to  talk with a neighbor without seeking government approval is offensive to many people, but  particularly to God,” a spokesperson for the church said. 

Republished with edits from JWUSA press statement. 

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