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Supreme Court considers city permit requirement for door-to-door solicitation


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Jehovah's Witnesses says its members spend more than a billion hours a year telling others about the religion, much of it going door to door with leaflets and invitations to hear the group's teachings.

The Jehovah's Witnesses do not go door to door in Stratton, Ohio, however: a town ordinance bars them and almost everybody else from doing so without a permit.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court considers whether such laws violate the constitutional right to free speech.

Lawyers for the church contend that Jehovah's Witnesses need no one's permission to take their case directly to other's doorsteps.

``Although the free one-on-one exchange of ideas is a pillar of our democracy, Stratton has devalued both the constitutional right of speakers to express information and the constitutional right of residents to receive it if they so choose,'' lawyers for the church wrote in a court filing.

Mormons, Independent Baptist Churches of America, Gun Owners of America and the American Civil Liberties Union are among more than a dozen organizations that signed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the church.

The National League of Cities and other municipal representatives back Stratton.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by July on the church's appeal of a federal court ruling that upheld the permit rules as evenhanded.

The court already has held that the Constitution gives people the right to distribute anonymous campaign literature, and a ruling for the church in this case would extend that right to anonymous door-to-door soliciting for any cause.

Stratton's ordinance requires that permits be obtained in advance before anyone can solicit at a private home. It applies to commercial salesmen, school groups selling candy bars or political candidates eager to shake hands. The solicitor must carry the permit for display to any resident who asks.

Attorneys for the Jehovah's Witnesses said the town of roughly 300 people passed the ordinance in 1998 to keep away members of the faith from a church in a neighboring town. Stratton's mayor then told a group of Jehovah's Witnesses they were not permitted in the town, and people had moved to Stratton to get away from them, the lawyers said.

Church lawyers said similar permit requirements have popped up in other jurisdictions over the years. Neither the church nor First Amendment scholars keep track of how many localities have such requirements.

Village leaders said permits are free, and nobody has ever been denied one. The ordinance is reasonable in ``weighing the First Amendment rights of canvassers against the right of homeowners to security, privacy and peacefulness in their homes,'' they told the Supreme Court.

The Constitution's First Amendment guarantees both free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have a storied history at the Supreme Court. The Christian denomination has brought more than two dozen high court cases, including some that helped establish broad protections for religious and political speech.

The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio, et al., 00-1737.
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