Court: Jehovah's Witnesses can knock on doors

MONTREAL — The Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court decision Wednesday, striking down a municipal bylaw restricting when Jehovah's Witnesses can go door-to-door to promote their religion.

The City of Blainville, north of Montreal, had argued many of its residents don't want Jehovah's Witnesses at their door on weekends and in the evenings.

Justice Pierre Dalphond ruled that municipalities could adopt bylaws regulating door-to-door canvassing to guarantee the peace and safety of residents, but must be consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The freedom of religion protected by the Charter includes the right to manifest religious belief by teaching and dissemination," Dalphond wrote.

"The impugned bylaw severely restricts the freedom of religion of Jehovah's Witnesses and the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression of the citizens of Blainville by prohibiting door-to-door in the evening and during the weekends and by allowing it the rest of the time only if a person holds a permit."

Dalphond's ruling upheld a lower-court ruling that declared the bylaw unconstitutional.

However, both sides claimed victory in the case.

Glen How, the Witnesses' lawyer, described the ruling as a "very good judgment."

"The town council in Blainville was trying to dictate what people can meet and talk about," he said. "It was just going too far.

"The Supreme Court has said that there's a right of people to speak to one another. In a democracy, communication is very important and anything that cuts off the rights of Mr. Average Citizen to talk to his neighbours or anybody else is certainly damaging to democratic rights."

Pierre Paquin, lawyer for the City of Blainville, said he doesn't believe the decision is a total loss but noted he would probably not recommend appealing the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"We've won the major points, which was can we adopt a bylaw like this one," he said. "The Court of Appeal says `Yes, but the one you've adopted is too oppresive so go back, do your homework and do a new bylaw.' That's what the judgment says."

He said it would be up to the city to decide if it will draft a new bylaw "but at least they can do it."

Alain Beauchemin, a Jehovah's Witness minister named as one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he was "very, very pleased."

"People have the right to interchange on different ideas -- social, political, religious ideas -- and it's not the right of the city to play Big Brother -- this is what the Court of Appeal has said," Beauchemin commented.