Topsfield may have a bylaw requiring door-to-door solicitors to register with police, but it does not apply to religious groups distributing faith-based materials, said Topsfield Chief of Police Dan O’Shea.
Earlier this month, the issue came under scrutiny when the town’s Board of Selectmen received a letter of complaint from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. The Society, which represents the interests of Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated in their letter that Topsfield police officers had advised their ministers to register with the police department before engaging in public ministry.
“On March 19, Officer Gary Hayward responded to a call about a suspicious vehicle turning in and out of private driveways on Haverhill Road,” said Chief O’Shea in reference to the incident.
According to O’Shea, after determining that the vehicle belonged to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Officer Hayward advised the ministers that they should check in with the police department – something Topsfield police officers direct all marketing solicitors to do as a matter of course.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest if we know who the solicitors are and what neighborhood they plan to be in in advance,” said O’Shea. “The public is not going to know who’s approaching their homes, and we invariably receive quite a few calls about suspicious people and vehicles. Generally, most solicitors understand this and are more than willing to supply us with information about their business.”
But, O’Shea also said that with regard to those engaged in public ministry, the protocol is different.
“If the door-to-door activity is religiously oriented, the ministers are not required to check in with the police department,” he said. “Although it would help us a great deal so that when residents do call in – as they always do – we are in a better position to assure them that we know who is in their neighborhood.
“I intend to review the different types of scenarios and situations with my staff and help them identify what may be happening before they approach a group,” O’Shea continued. “Sometimes you can’t engage in conversation with [itinerant] ministers without the risk of being misunderstood.”
Adopted 40 years ago, the town’s bylaw requiring solicitors to register with the police department is, according to Selectman Joe Iarocci, “a precautionary kind of thing. It was not meant to stymie the Fuller Brush man or girl scouts going door to door selling cookies.”
Many communities across the country have similar ordinances regarding solicitation, which have proven to be unconstitutional with regard to itinerant evangelical ministers, according to the letter from Watchtower representatives. On the official Web site of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, (watchtower.org) the group’s ministers are commissioned to “bear witness concerning Jehovah, his Godship and his purposes” and feel it is their calling to engage others in their scripture-based beliefs.
“Topsfield does not have any restrictions or prohibitions of any kind regarding public ministry,” said O’Shea.
“I responded to the [Watchtower] letter and assured them that Topsfield prides itself on welcoming outsiders to the town,” said Iarocci.