Soliciting rules bar ministers

News-Press, Florida/July 2, 2010

Jehovah's Witnesses used to have free reign to spread their gospel.

They roamed neighborhoods pushing religion with door-to-door visits.

Then came gated communities. Private property is unholy ground for the religious solicitor.

Town and River, a subdivision west of McGregor Boulevard, isn't gated, yet sheriff's deputies shooed away Jehovah's Witnesses ministers last March.

The reaction was predictable from the legal department in New York.

Citing a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the court held 8-1

that canvassing/solicitation-permit ordinances are unconstitutional as applied against the public ministry of Jehovah's Witnesses," said the group's legal counsel.

"In Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton ..., the court struck down Stratton, Ohio's ordinance, which had required Jehovah's Witnesses to register prior to engaging in their house-to-house ministry," said Watchtower Associate General Counsel Paul D. Polidoro in a May 27 letter to Lee County.

Not so fast, counselor.

There is no ordinance.

There is no permitting.

In a June 9 letter, Barry R. Hillmyer, legal director for the sheriff's office, told Polidoro it was his opinion deputies were right in removing the Witnesses.

"... Town and River may have a no solicitation rule and because it is within the jurisdiction of the Lee County Sheriff's Office, such subdivision rule will be enforced," he said.

Bob Pease, president of the Town and River Civic Association, says Hillmyer made the correct call.

"No question about it," he said. "We have posted signs against soliciting at every entry and it is in our deed of restrictions."

Pease said he's had a few complaints, more since new no solicitation signs went up six months ago.

No doubt about it.

Soliciting wears thin, even when solicitors are pushing the Bible.

"Typically, the Cape is all public streets," said Jay Murphy, interim police chief in Cape Coral. "As long as Jehovah's Witnesses are on public access, we have no reason to ask them to move. But any gated community can deny access."

Hence the gate.

Police Chief Doug Baker says complaints against Jehovah's Witnesses are rare in Fort Myers.

"I don't know if we've ever been asked," he said.

Gary L. Hughes, an elder and Jehovah's Witness since 1974, says he was asked to move once in five years in Cape Coral.

"That was a park ranger in Jaycee Park," he said. "We see the police all the time. They wave at us."

Hughes says he knows when to move next door.

"We don't argue with people," he said. "We certainly respect their right to say they're not interested."

There are no gates in my neighborhood, but chasing away Jehovahs is easy.

"Martin Luther would turn over in his grave if he knew you were trying to indoctrinate me."

It works every time.

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