Canadian Press, June 17, 2003
MONTREAL (CP) — A municipal bylaw restricting when Jehovah’s Witnesses can go door to door protects residents’ right to privacy and does not violate the group’s right to religious freedom and expression, a lawyer argued Tuesday.
The City of Blainville, which believes many of its residents don’t want Jehovah’s Witnesses at their door on weekends and in the evening, is appealing a lower-court ruling that declared its bylaw unconstitutional.
Lawyer Pierre Paquin, representing the city just north of Montreal, told three Quebec Court of Appeal justices that city officials are not restricting anyone’s religious freedoms by insisting people pay $100 for an annual permit for all door-to-door visits.
Permit holders can only canvass two months each year. And the soliciting must be between 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The city believes it has the right to restrict how people express their religion in public in order to protect people’s rights to privacy in their own homes, said Paquin.
“We’re not talking about a witch hunt,” said Paquin.
He argued it’s reasonable to believe Witnesses could canvass the city within the two-month period covered by the permit. And the fact the permit applies to all groups, including charities, shows there is no discrimination. But the three justices cautioned Paquin that it’s dangerous to distinguish between people’s right to religious freedom and their right to express their religious beliefs.
“If these aren’t restrictions on religious freedoms, I don’t know what are,” said Justice Pierre Dalphond.
Dalphond also said the City of Blainville has been “paternalistic” in its treatment of residents by not allowing them the right to not answer the door, or the option of discussing their views with the Witnesses.
In April 2001, a Quebec Superior Court justice ruled that to lump the religious group in with peddlers was “insulting, degrading, hurtful and defamatory.”
However, the judge refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses request for $3,500 in damages for each of the 14 people fined under the bylaw since 1997.
The City of Blainville appealed the ruling, while the Witnesses are appealing the question of damages.
Lawyers representing the Witnesses argued that awarding damages sends a message to all publicly elected officials.
“To put it in simple English, you can not license freedom of expression,” said lawyer Glen How, who is also a Witness.
“This is a scandalous abuse.”
Another lawyer for the Witnesses, Andre Carbonneau, argued damages should be awarded because city council specifically targeted the group with its bylaw even though there had never been any complaints filed before the bylaw was passed in 1996.
Justice Rene Letarte countered that the fact the bylaw cites religious visits as an example of groups needing permits does not mean the Witnesses are being treated differently from anyone else who wants to go door to door.
Pending the outcome of the appeals, the Witnesses have continued their door-to-door visits — without permits and on weekend afternoons.
Alain Beauchemin, a Jehovah’s Witness minister named as one of the plaintiffs in the court case, said the visits are a key part of his worship to God.
“It’s not just trying to look for new converts, as many have suspected, and it’s certainly not money that motivates us,” said Beauchemin, who attended Tuesday’s court hearing.
He said most people who do open their doors are indifferent, not annoyed, while others are interested and take the time to listen to his message.
Beauchemin said he is passionate about fighting the bylaw in part because his grandmother was persecuted in the 1950s, and even spent time in jail, for trying to talk to Quebecers about her faith.
“Freedoms have always been very, very important to us, especially the freedom of speech, not just religion.”
The judges gave no indication when their decision will be ready.