Faith celebrates Supreme Court decision that saved door-to-door missionary work
IDAHO FALLS – A historic ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court is taking the nation by storm this week as many reflect on the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
A local denomination recalls another landmark Supreme Court decision dating back to 2002.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Watchtower vs. Stratton, a case that upheld the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christians to go door-to-door doing missionary work. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were at the center of the case, celebrate the decision as they prepare to resume public ministry for the first time in two years.
“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,” Josh McDaniel, director of the Religious Freedom Clinic at Harvard Law School, says in a news release. “This is just the latest of some 50 Supreme Court victories by Jehovah’s Witnesses that have helped establish and broaden First Amendment jurisprudence throughout the last century.”
Watchtower vs. Stratton
It all began in Stratton, Ohio. City officials had imposed restrictions on door-knocking, requiring religious missionaries, political canvassers and others to pre-register with the mayor’s office and obtain a permit.
Reasons cited by city residents for implementing the permit policy stemmed from a “desire to protect the privacy and safety of residents as well as prevent fraud.”
An article from the Deseret News points out that support for restrictions on door-to-door proselyting, canvassing and sales calls was growing in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Two lower court rulings upheld the permit ordinance, but Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the policy, saying it infringed on fundamental First Amendment rights.
Robert Hendriks, a U.S. spokesman for the religion, says it was also about defending their “scriptural obligation to preach the good news of the kingdom.”
“Making it a criminal offense to talk with a neighbor without seeking government approval is offensive to many people, but particularly to God, who commanded Christians to preach the gospel,” Hendriks explains in a news release.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the town’s restrictions. In an 8-1 decision, the court decided that requiring missionaries to obtain permits interfered with freedom of speech and violated the First Amendment.
“It is offensive not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society, that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so,” Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion.
Stevens also took issue with the town’s attempt to address security concerns with the measure, saying it did not adequately resolve the issue.
“It seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations,” Stevens wrote in his opinion.
A far-reaching impact
The victory in the case had far-reaching benefits for members of other faiths as well, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, Latter-day Saint leaders were among the faith groups that filed a brief in support of the challenge and applauded the final ruling.
“We are gratified that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the important First Amendment right to share religious belief, thereby expanding the right of choice,” a church spokesman said at the time, according to the Deseret News.
Amanda Pedrick of Pocatello converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith nearly a decade after the court’s decision and she’s grateful for the outcome.
Pedrick abused drugs and alcohol for years, according to a news release, and she often wonders what her life would be like if one of their neighbors had not knocked on her door that day in 2011.
“I remember laying in bed asking God what’s the point of me being here,” Pedrick says. “The next week, I got a knock on my door. It honestly scares me to think what my life would’ve been like (had they not visited me).”
Now as a member of the faith, Pedrick enjoys proselyting with her fellow church members. As public ministering came to a halt in 2020, she continued her proselyting efforts through letter writing, phone calls and virtual visits.
After two years, she is looking forward to knocking on doors again. And she’s even more grateful for the constitutionally-protected right to share her beliefs with others.
“We are thankful that we have the legal right to practice our ministry from door to door,” Hendriks says in a news release. “When the time is right and conditions are safe, we hope to visit our neighbors in person once again.”
Nationwide, there are nearly 1.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in about 13,000 congregations. Between Preston and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, regional spokesman Keith Hildreth says there are at least 14 Jehovah’s Witness congregations, with a total of 800-1,000 church members throughout the area.