Case holds interest of Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses are waiting with interest for a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected this month that could affect their ability to continue with door-to-door visits - a cornerstone of the faith.

At issue is a lawsuit filed by the Jehovah's Witness denomination nationwide challenging an Ohio village's ordinance requiring people going door-to-door to first obtain a free permit and register their names with the local government. Tucson does not impose such restrictions.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe they should be allowed to go door-to-door without the interference of government.

"It's a freedom-of-religion issue,'' said Gilberto Valencia, a 59-year-old electronics salesman from Litchfield Park who is in Tucson this weekend for the second of five regional Jehovah's Witness conventions.

"Jesus told us to go to the farthest parts of the Earth to preach the Bible. We take the good news to people and show them what Jesus taught. . . . We're confident everything will work out.''

In 1998, the 300 residents of Stratton, Ohio, passed an ordinance that requires anyone interested in going door-to-door to "sell, advertise, promote or explain any product, service, organization or cause" to first obtain a free permit. The Stratton ordinance does not single out anyone or any group by name, and no one has ever been turned down for a permit.

Proponents say the ordinance does not hinder freedom of religion because it applies equally to all groups, religious or otherwise. Opponents say the ordinance hinders their freedom of religion by requiring them to obtain a license to share it.

"From our vantage point it's about freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press,'' said Paul Polidoro, associate general counsel for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., the Jehovah's Witness corporation challenging the ordinance.

Freedom of the press refers to the ability of Jehovah's Witness adherents to distribute literature when they are going through neighborhoods. Polidoro argues the ordinance would prevent anyone else from giving out printed material door-to-door without a permit.

The case is being watched by cities and towns across the country that have passed ordinances to protect residents from uninvited guests - including people who proselytize. Proponents argue solicitors do not have the right to remain anonymous while on private property.

Jehovah's Witnesses like Valencia, however, say a better solution would be for residents to post "no trespassing" signs on their property, which he says Jehovah's Witness adherents always respect.

A high court ruling against them could prove an interesting challenge for Jehovah's Witnesses, who regard civil authority as necessary and obey it, "as long as its laws do not contradict God's law." But they also say the current case before the U.S. Supreme Court is putting their religious liberty in question.

"We want to cooperate with the government to the best of our ability,'' said Barry Mish-kind, a spokesman for the local Jehovah's Witness news service. About 6,500 Jehovah's Witnesses live in Southern Arizona, including Tucson.

Jehovah's Witnesses pay taxes, but they don't vote, salute the flag or participate in secular government. And in countries with mandatory military service, they are often jailed for refusing to serve.

"We are answering to a higher source than local authorities,'' said Richard Varón, a 38-year-old Tucsonan who works in the construction industry and spends an average of 70 hours a month going door-to-door to share his religion. "We're confident that there will be continued support for freedom of religion.''

The Jehovah's Witness name comes from the book of Isaiah - " 'Ye are my witness,' saith Jehovah." Adherents believe each Witness should share God's word in the Bible, which is why they go door-to-door around the world offering biblical literature. They read a version of the Bible called the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published by the corporation under which they work.

Many join the faith because of the home visits. Varón, for example, indirectly became an adherent because of a door-to-door visit paid to his mother in New Jersey in the 1960s. His mother had been raised Catholic but switched to Jehovah's Witness after some members came to her door and read the Bible with her.

The Supreme Court has previously found that requiring religious groups to be licensed was a violation of their constitutional rights and, because the law allowed the state to determine what constituted a religion, also a violation of the Establishment of Religion Clause of the First Amendment.

This weekend's Jehovah's Witness convention at the Tucson Convention Center is for Spanish speakers, as is next weekend's program. Two more programs scheduled for July are in English. The conventions are expected to attract nearly 8,000 people each weekend.