Walling off the Witnesses

By Joel P. Engardiofilmmaker When it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses sharing Watchtower magazines and Bible messages door-to-door, I’m impressed by … Continued

By Joel P. Engardio

When it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses sharing Watchtower magazines and Bible messages door-to-door, I’m impressed by what people will do to save themselves from the annoyance. A town in Ohio required the Witnesses to register at city hall for a permit that was always denied. In Puerto Rico, more drastic measures were taken: neighborhoods erected walls and gates around public residential streets to keep the Witnesses out.

But walls and gates keep Girl Scouts and their cookies out, too. Not to mention concerned citizens who need to circulate a petition on such annoying and pesky matters as government malfeasance. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme court struck down the Ohio ordinance as unconstitutional. “It is offensive,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “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.”

It was not a unanimous decision, which means that even from the perspective of the Supreme Court, the most fundamental First Amendment rights are not an automatic guarantee. That’s why unpopular groups like the Witnesses are left to fight for their rights time and again. The good news is that lots of people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses benefit every time the Witnesses win a case.

“Freedom of expression is an essential element of human existence. It encompasses both the right to speak and the right to hear,” says Philip Brumley, General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who oversaw the Ohio win and is directing the Puerto Rico case currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals. “The decisions confirming our free speech rights have ensured that all may enjoy open discourse. We would hope that all countries would embrace this principle.”

Think of the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a necessary annoyance for living in a free society. After all, how we treat Jehovah’s Witnesses only foreshadows what others will face when they have something unpopular to say.

Last month, the Russian Supreme Court upheld a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was a troubling ruling for anyone in the so-called democratic Russia who has thoughts or beliefs outside the mainstream. The American Civil Liberties Union backed the Ohio Witnesses in 2002 by filing an amicus brief and is doing the same now for the 25,000 Witnesses who worship in Puerto Rico. There are one million Witnesses in the United States and seven million worldwide.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses unquestionably have a constitutionally protected right to proclaim their faith on the public streets of Puerto Rico,” says Daniel Mach, who directs litigation for the ACLU’s freedom of religion program.

The public street is a sacred spot for free speech. Laws that restrict access to the easiest place to exchange ideas are dangerous to democracy. Consider how expensive it is to publicize a message in today’s media world. YouTube and the internet aside, campaigns still spend vast millions of dollars on media advertising that individuals or small advocacy groups cannot compete with. Limiting the ability of someone to simply share a message door-to-door – at a cost of only their shoe leather on the sidewalk – shuts down the most basic form of free speech.

Of course, there are lots of messages we’d rather not see or hear. Consider highway billboards. Gay pride parades in southern states are about as popular as Mormon jubilees in northern California. Yet each deserves constitutional protection because they mean something to someone. Isn’t that the point of a marketplace of ideas? Every opinion gets its fair hearing.

More than the patience of its neighbors, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Connecticut in 1940 tested the very boundaries of how we define the First Amendment today. Then, Newton Cantwell and his two sons were arrested for distributing Jehovah’s Witness publications door-to-door in a mostly Catholic neighborhood. In ruling for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Supreme Court connected the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause with the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause for the first time. Before this case, state and local governments defined and enforced freedom of religion as they saw fit. The Supreme Court issued a federal standard: Jehovah’s Witnesses and everyone else have the right to freely speak, worship, assemble and distribute publications on doorsteps and public streets without government regulation, as long as the speech does not incite bodily harm.

Decades later, the Witnesses still find themselves fighting the same case. In their last Supreme Court appearance in 2002, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked if banning Jehovah’s Witnesses from knocking on doors would make it difficult for the neighbor who wanted to “borrow a cup of sugar.” The walls and gates now restricting speech on the public streets in Puerto Rico provides an unsettling answer.

(Read more about Jehovah’s Witnesses at Patheos.com)

Joel P. Engardio directed the award-winning PBS documentary KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is a writer, filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. Engardio currently helps the American Civil Liberties Union communicate its message and issues through online video.

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  • lepidopteryx

    When I see that the person on the other side of the door is holding a Bible or copies of The Watchtower, or wearing a name tag identifying them as Elder Whosit, I answer the door naked.

  • WmarkW

    Yeah, they have the constitutional right to spew crap.When burglars find that impersonating them is an effective cover to identify empty houses, I wonder what steps will be considered acceptable law enforcement.

  • ccnl1


  • ccnl1

    To reiterate, it is all about the founders of the major religions and their favorite “tinker bell(s)” aka angel.Joe Smith had his Moroni.Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerer” got around).Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties. Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • khote14

    The JW’s seem to be as harmless a group of nuts as I’ve encountered.Will wonders never cease. By the way, I agree with the ACLU’s support of these weirdos and their right to bother people. Like lepidopteryx, when I must deal with them I usually find something vaguely obscene to say or do .. just accidentally mind you.

  • WmarkW

    “The JW’s seem to be as harmless a group of nuts as I’ve encountered.”They are as long as they remain small. If a significant proportion of our population became convinced that Armageddon was coming within their lifetimes, I think the societal decay could become a self-fulling prophesy.

  • darkglobe5

    When the JWs come to your door, tell them, “I’ve read your material. I think you’re wrong, I don’t believe it. Tell your elder to put this house on your no-call list, because we’ve heard your message and we reject it.” They’ll never bother you again.

  • paulhume

    As noted by another poster, the local Kingdom Halls maintain a do-not-call list, so the first time a JW bothers you can be the last. I don’t know if the local Stakes do the same for when the young men in white shirts and black ties come calling.A lot of people I know spend significant time talking about the significant time they spend devising elaborate scenarioes to try and blow the minds of the Witnesses next time they come calling. I must admit, I find closing the door again (with or without saying anything) is the most efficient way of dealing with their calls.The guys selling siding or windows door to door are harder to shake. Though the lady in Berlin back in 1973 who knocked on the door despite the picture of Aleister Crowley with “Tue was du willst soll sei das Ganze des Gesetzes” written above it that I had hanging there obviously showed commitment above and beyond the norm.

  • stevepaint

    To WmarkW, Burglars usually do not dress up in suits & ties, or skirts & high heels.

  • stevepaint

    To WmarkW, Burglars usually do not dress up in suits & ties, or skirts & high heels.