The Issue—How It All Began
STRATTON, OHIO, U.S.A., is a small community located near the Ohio River, which separates Ohio from West Virginia. It is defined as a village and has a mayor. This small community of fewer than 300 inhabitants suddenly became a center of controversy in 1999 when the authorities there tried to obligate Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, to obtain a permit before visiting the homes of the local people with their Bible-based message.
Why is this an important issue? As our account develops, you will see that this type of governmental ordinance and control would effectively limit the free-speech rights of not just Jehovah’s Witnesses but all who live in the United States.
How the Conflict Developed
The residents of Stratton had been visited for years by ministers of the local Wellsville Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had had problems with a few local officials regarding such house-to-house ministry ever since 1979. In the early 1990’s, a local police officer chased a group of Witnesses out of town, stating: “I couldn’t care less about your rights.”
The matter came to a head in 1998 when the mayor of Stratton personally confronted four of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were driving out of the village after having returned there to speak with residents who had shown interest in having Bible-based discussions. According to one of the women who was confronted, the mayor stated that if they were men, he would put them in jail.
The source of the latest conflict was a village ordinance “Regulating Uninvited Peddling and Solicitation Upon Private Property,” which required anyone wishing to engage in door-to-door activity to obtain a permit, at no cost, from the mayor. Jehovah’s Witnesses viewed this ordinance as an infringement of freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom of press. Therefore, they brought a lawsuit in federal court after the village refused to modify their enforcement of this ordinance.
On July 27, 1999, a hearing was held before a U.S. district court judge for the Southern District of Ohio. He upheld the constitutionality of the village’s permit ordinance. Thereafter, on February 20, 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit likewise affirmed the constitutionality of the ordinance.
For the issue to be settled, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York along with the local Wellsville Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the case.
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