ACLU Brief Affirms Right of Jehovah's Witnesses to Carry Out Public Ministry

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ACLU Brief Affirms Right of Jehovah's Witnesses to Carry Out Public Ministry

Laws in Puerto Rico Restricting Access to Public Streets Violate First Amendment

NEW YORK - The
American Civil Liberties Union, its national chapter in Puerto Rico and
its affiliates in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island
filed a friend-of-the-court brief late Wednesday opposing
unconstitutional laws that effectively ban Jehovah's Witnesses from
freely expressing their faith in the streets of Puerto Rico.

The brief, filed in the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the First Circuit, supports a constitutional challenge
to Puerto Rico laws, enacted in 1987, that authorize neighborhoods to
deny citizens access to public residential streets by erecting walls
and gates around them. The laws effectively prohibit Jehovah's
Witnesses from engaging in the door-to-door public ministry for which
they are well known worldwide. The federal lawsuit was filed by the
approximately 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in 318 congregations in Puerto
Rico, as well as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York,
Inc., the publisher of religious material that is often distributed by
Jehovah's Witnesses.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses
unquestionably have a constitutionally protected right to proclaim
their faith on the public streets of Puerto Rico," said Daniel Mach,
Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and
Belief. "These laws impose sweeping restrictions on free speech and
religious exercise and strike at the heart of the First Amendment."

The ACLU's amicus brief, filed with
cooperating counsel at the Washington, DC office of Mayer Brown LLP,
argues that closing off public streets to outside speakers is an
unprecedented intrusion on some of the most basic, fundamental rights
guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The brief also notes that the amount
of constitutionally protected speech restricted by the challenged laws
extends well beyond religious expression. The laws not only limit the
ability of religious adherents to spread their message of faith, but
also prohibit, for example, door-to-door charitable solicitations and
political canvassing.

"The public street has long been the
archetype of a traditional public forum," said William Ramirez,
Executive Director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. "These laws dangerously
limit access to places that for ages have served as forums for
unfettered public discussion and communication."

The brief also argues that personal
appeals made through door-to-door messaging have long been recognized
as uniquely powerful means of communication, and there are no adequate
alternatives available under Puerto Rico's restrictive laws.
Door-to-door messaging is also the only means of communication that is
affordable for many small and poorly financed groups, and bans on
door-to-door messaging effectively serves to silence these groups
entirely.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

A copy of the ACLU's amicus brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/watchtower-bible-et-al-v-de-jesus-et-al-brief

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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