Puyallup’s anti-solicitation ordinance provides exceptions for an odd assortment of characters: newspaper couriers, lawn-care providers, farmers, kids selling holiday wreaths, the guy with the snow blower trying to capitalize on a rare Western Washington blizzard.
What’s missing from that list is a group that repeatedly has gone to court to protect its ability to go door-to-door, and that may be the Puyallup law’s fatal flaw.
Religious groups enjoy free speech and religious freedom protections that limit the restrictions that government can put on their solicitations. Municipalities are routinely advised these days to steer clear of laws that regulate door-to-door activities by these groups.
Puyallup is certainly not alone in ignoring that advice. Many cities leave the laws on the books and wait for someone to challenge them.
But Puyallup still should have seen what was coming. Earlier this year, representatives of United States Mission approached the city about its law requiring registration of anyone “seeking to obtain gifts or contributions of money . . . for the support or benefit of any charitable or nonprofit organization.”
United States Mission, a religious nonprofit that provides men’s transitional housing, has a history of challenging such registration requirements. In 2001, it sued the City of Medina and won. Medina’s anti-solicitation law is now a skeleton of its former self.
Courts have repeatedly struck down laws aimed at barring the faithful from proselytizing by requiring them to register. Many of these laws have been aimed at specific religious groups – Jehovah’s Witnesses are frequently targeted. Some laws even empowered government bureaucrats to judge whether a solicitor’s stated religion was valid.
Puyallup’s motives seem purer. Its law puts no restriction on proselytizers who attempt to chat with residents and leave a tract or two. Only groups like the Mission that also collect donations are subject to registration.
The city seems primarily concerned with protecting residents from ex-cons. Many of the men going door-to-door for the mission have criminal backgrounds, although the organization’s leaders say their solicitors are screened for prior sex offenses or excessive violence.
But the city can’t single out one group for regulation. If the Puyallup law applies to the mission, then it applies to all religious groups that might ask for donations as they spread their message. Nor can the city easily separate evangelizers’ spiritual message from their financial one.
Puyallup would likely be better off taking this advice from the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision striking down an Ohio solicitation law:
“Authorizing residents to post ‘No Solicitation’ signs, coupled with their unquestioned right to refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors, provides ample protection for unwilling listeners. . . . it seems unlikely that the lack of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors . . .”