Court Reaffirms Freedom to Preach from Door to Door
IT WAS a warm day in early June 1977. Two well-dressed couples were calling peacefully from house to house in Ladue, Missouri, a suburb of the city of St. Louis. The visitors spoke to the householders about the breakdown of family life in these unsettled times and pointed out the benefits of family Bible study. A more innocent or helpful activity would be hard to imagine.
Yet, suddenly, into this peaceful scene came police officers of the city of Ladue. The four people were arrested and taken to the police station. The two men, both ministers, were charged with an offense under a local ordinance!
Why? Were they really committing an offense by talking to the people about the Bible? Why would the police want to stop them? Was this a new activity, something the officials did not understand?
A Time-honored Practice
It is a well-known historical fact that even Jesus and his apostles visited people in their homes to spread the Word of God. This time-honored practice has continued right into our 20th century.
Prominent and well known in this field are Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, in the 1930’s and 1940’s in the United States, charges were laid under some municipal ordinances contending that these Christian evangelists required commercial permits as “peddlers” or “solicitors.” Since Jehovah’s Witnesses were engaged in a noncommercial religious activity, they contended that the guarantee of religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution was all the permit they required.
In a landmark decision of 1943, the Supreme Court of the United States put a stop to the harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses under such misapplied ordinances. The majority decision written by Mr. Justice Douglas was clear and strongly motivated:
“The hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism—as old as the history of printing presses. It has been a potent force in various religious movements down through the years. . . .
“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.
“It is a distortion of the facts of record to describe their activities as the occupation of selling books and pamphlets.”
But if the law protects this type of religious activity, why were the two ministers calling in Ladue arrested and charged?
A New Legal Attack
In 1974, under the guidance of the city attorney of Ladue, there began a series of step-by-step encroachments on the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These were designed first to restrict and finally to prohibit them from visiting homes in the city.
In 1976 the City Council enacted a special ordinance, making it an offense for anyone to go from door to door in Ladue. However, it exempted all churches located in the city. It exempted all political callers. It exempted all distributors of newspapers. It exempted any solicitation by organizations approved by the Charitable Solicitations Commission.
The end result was simple: the ordinance was used to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses and no one else! Thus, the following instructions were given to the police:
“In order for any one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to preach the Bible on a door-to-door basis in Ladue, he or she must first obtain a permit . . . complete with police investigation and fingerprinting.”
Imagine! Investigated and fingerprinted like a criminal for desiring to preach the Bible!
But even if one were to get a permit, the police were still instructed to prohibit freedom of the press. According to instructions issued by the chief of police, one “may go door-to-door in Ladue only using the Bible; there can be no ‘selling’ [distributing] of magazines or Bible study aids.”—Italics added.
The Supreme Court has declared that the Constitution permits one to “preach publicly and from house to house” and to accept contributions from willing donors. The Ladue ordinance made it an offense to do either unless the applicant obtained an exemption or a permit!
The city instituted civil proceedings in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. It asked the Court to declare its ordinance to be valid and legal. Jehovah’s Witnesses counterclaimed for a declaration that the ordinance was illegal and unconstitutional.
The case was set for trial on April 5, 1979, before Judge Philip Sweeney. The courtroom was packed with spectators, and many stood outside. Tension was high. News reporters were in attendance. A television camera crew with its banks of lights waited outside.
The case for the city began. One of their witnesses called was the chief of police. He admitted that no nonprofit organization except Jehovah’s Witnesses had been requested to get a permit. All others had been allowed to call at the homes of the people without the fingerprinting and other demeaning requirements.
At the conclusion of the city’s case the defendants called their evidence. The first witness was Mr. James Hinton, who had been arrested in the city of Ladue. Mr. Hinton explained that he was a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses and had gone into Ladue to make calls on the people who lived there. How did the householders respond? He replied:
“The people that we talked to were very kind. They, of their own admission, wondered why we had not been around for some time. . . .
“There was only one lady that I encountered in the morning that did not accept the literature. She said that she was a Catholic and she really appreciated the work that we did, that we were the only ones that were going from door to door evangelizing.”
An effort had been made by the city to pretend that this was a profit-making “solicitation.” But Mr. Hinton explained that his expenses of running his car and visiting people were far more than any donations he ever received for the literature.
The second defense witness was Mr. Alvyn Franck, a district overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses for the states of Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. Mr. Franck spoke of the practical value of door-to-door evangelizing:
“We feel an obligation to our neighbors to convey to them what we have learned from the Scriptures, the moral content of the Scriptures. We have been able to aid thousands upon thousands of youth that have had the drug problem, for example, alcohol problems, domestic problems, you name it. We feel and we know that the Bible handles these situations.
“We believe it is the Creator’s Word and it’s been very effective for nineteen hundred years in assisting people, and so unless we can make the face-to-face contact with individuals, Christianity is ineffective.”
Judge Sweeney conducted a dignified and impartial trial. He showed great care in listening to the evidence as well as the oral argument of counsel. He also requested written argument.
What written arguments did the attorneys present in their briefs to Judge Sweeney? There were four main areas of contention.
(1) Does the Constitution Still Protect Free Public Discussion? Yes, because the Supreme Court of the United States had made it clear nearly 40 years ago that freedom under the Constitution included the right to engage in public missionary-evangelical work. As Judge Will, a federal judge in Chicago, stated in a case in 1973: “The constitutional inapplicability of this type of ordinance to religious activities has been a closed question for decades.”
The Supreme Court itself restated, in a 1978 judgment, the vital right of free flow of religious thought, declaring:
“The right to the free exercise of religion unquestionably encompasses the right to preach, proselyte, and perform other similar religious functions.”
Justice Brennan in a concurring opinion added:
“Religious ideas, no less than any other, may be the subject of debate which is ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide open. . . .’ Government may not interfere with efforts to proselyte or worship in public places.”
(2) Does a Preacher Need a License? The brief for Jehovah’s Witnesses showed that Ladue’s demand that a preacher get a license or permit was not very original. In fact, it appeared in English lawbooks almost 600 years ago! That same argument was made by the inquisitors of the Court of the Inquisition against John Wycliffe in 1383. He was charged with teaching:
“That it is lawful for any man, either deacon or priest, to preach the Word of God without the authorities or license of the Apostolike Sea or any other of his catholickes.”
The essential argument of the inquisitors was that no one should be allowed “to preach the Word of God” without an official permit. This is the same argument made by Ladue 596 years later!
But the whole purpose of the liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution was to abolish the evil restrictions of the Inquisition. The guarantee in the American Bill of Rights of “free exercise of religion” is a permit! No government, whether municipal, state or national can demand any other!
(3) Does the Ordinance Help Control Crime? The attorney for the city of Ladue contended that the purpose of its permit was to enable the police to know who was going from house to house. Some people calling on homes might be criminals, he argued. He did admit, however, that there is no reason to doubt that Jehovah’s Witnesses are responsible people.
The brief for Jehovah’s Witnesses showed that the ordinance of Ladue did not, in reality, provide any protection from criminals. It exempted all groups except Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are admittedly people of good character. How could criminals be controlled by laws used solely to interfere with honest, law-abiding people?
(4) Was It Necessary to Get Approval of the Charities Solicitation Commission? The sole function of this commission was to oversee the work of organizations that were soliciting funds, not those engaged in teaching and preaching, as are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The courts have shown that there is a difference between the traditional type of charity that solicits funds, on one hand, and the type of nonprofit organization that is primarily engaged in disseminating information, on the other. The Bible-based publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses are only a means toward explaining their doctrine. The small contributions invited are merely incidental to the proclamation of their views. This is not “soliciting” within the meaning of the law. Nor does it come under the supervision of regulatory bodies such as the Charities Solicitation Commission.
A Courageous Decision
On May 24, 1979, Judge Sweeney released his decision. First, he commented on the responsible conduct of Jehovah’s Witnesses as proved by the evidence, stating: “The defendants herein were responsible people of unchallenged good character. Their calls on the people of Ladue were without dispute or controversy. In the majority of cases they were well received by the householders; when the party was not interested in their message they left politely without incident. There can be no doubt under the evidence adduced that the activity they engaged in was Religious and Non-Commercial and was carried on at an economic loss to the defendants because of their beliefs and motivation.”
Then the judge declared that the Ladue ordinance was illegal. It was discriminatory, exempting certain churches and charities as well as all political groups, while seeking to stop others.
Additionally, Judge Sweeney declared the ordinance to be unconstitutional because of its effort to control free communication. He explained: “As the subject Ordinance attempts to regulate free speech, ideas or religious thought it is unenforceable and void, since government cannot lawfully shield its citizens from the free flow of religious or political thoughts and ideas.” The judgment concluded:
“For the above reasons, the Court Finds, Adjudges and Decrees the City of Ladue is permanently enjoined from enforcing the above Ordinance as it purports to relate to defendants and other members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as to the prescribed activities set out herein. Costs assessed against Plaintiff.”
Thus a municipal effort to deny basic human liberties was brought to an abrupt halt by the decision of a courageous and discerning judge who reaffirmed the freedom to preach from door to door.