On March 19, when Topsfield police officer Gary Hayward told a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses they’d be better off obtaining a soliciting permit from the police before descending upon local neighborhoods with religious literature, it became clear that Hayward hadn’t spent much time in Stratton, Ohio.
– Source: Facts about the Jehovah’s Witnesses
– Source: Four Dangers of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization
If he had, Hayward surely would have recalled the groundbreaking 2001 Supreme Court ruling that gave Jehovah’s Witnesses the right to spread the word of God wherever they please-without permission from any higher authority.
“Legally, the issue was put to rest a couple of years ago,” says Paul Polidoro, associate general counsel at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the New York-based parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Polidoro promptly sent a letter to the Topsfield police department reiterating his organization’s legal rights.
“Stratton was requiring anyone who wanted to speak to get a permit before they went door to door,” Polidoro explains. “Given the precedents back in the ’30s and ’40s protecting speech and press, we felt the community couldn’t obligate an individual to get a permit to speak with their neighbor. The case percolated up to the Supreme Court and they agreed with us.”
Topsfield Police Chief Dan O’Shea says he also agrees with the Supreme Court decision, but says it occasionally puts local police departments in a tough spot. O’Shea says he’s all for the freedom of religious speech, but communities also have the right to know who’s patrolling their neighborhoods.
“You want to be responsive to the community, but at the same time, you’ve got to abide by the case law decisions that are out there,” says O’Shea. “You don’t want to have the feeling that the officers can’t even interact with (Jehovah’s Witnesses). If it happens again and we ask them their purpose, we’d hate to get flagged again. How far does it go?”
Usually not too far. Polidoro says it’s rare that any discord between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the authorities ever escalates beyond a simple misunderstanding. As Polidoro points out, you can’t argue with the Supreme Court.
“It’s an odd circumstance when somebody calls the police and even odder if the police actually get involved,” says Polidoro. “The law is very well established. Once the Supreme Court speaks on the matter of federal constitutional rights, that’s the final word.”