Literature evangelists are expected return to the streets of Alabaster, Alabama on July 18, one day after a U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama set March 2013 for a hearing on a Seventh-day Adventist Church challenge to local laws requiring colporteurs to get a permit from the city. Alabaster police issued tickets June 27 to two Oakwood University students who were canvassing there.
U.S. District Judge Karon O. Bowdre, during a July 18 hearing at the Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, said she was “convinced” the Adventist activity – a longtime staple of church outreach in the United States and other countries – was spiritual and not commercial in nature, according to attorney Todd McFarland, an associate general counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
In a lawsuit filed with the court, the Adventist Church alleged Alabaster’s “ordinances directly target, and impose a prior restraint upon, speech afforded the highest levels of protection by the First Amendment,” noting, “Courts have routinely rejected governmental efforts to impose this sort of sweeping prior restraint on speech, and particularly so when the speech involved lies at the very core of our constitutional system.”
The Alabaster regulations, which media reports said were enacted in 1994, require filing of an extensive application, without the promise of approval, or even the opportunity to appeal, before activity is slated to begin. The city “may,” according to its regulations, grant such approval, but is not required to do so even if all the conditions are met, the Adventist Church complaint alleges.
McFarland said the student missionaries – often referred to as “Literature Evangelists” – attend church-owned Oakwood University in Huntsville, 122.5 miles north of Alabaster. The school’s summer evangelism teams had planned a door-to-door effort in the Birmingham suburb, and had notified city officials of their plans.
In common with many religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Salvation Army and other Christian and non-Christian movements, Seventh-day Adventists believe it is a basic right to go door-to-door to spread their message. The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld this right in two celebrated cases, 1943’sMurdock vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and 2002’s Watchtower Society vs. Village of Stratton, and Judge Bowdrie citedMurdock in her comments from the bench.
For Adventists, such activity is said to be in fulfillment of what is often called Jesus’ “Great Commission” to His disciples: “go and make disciples of all nations,” as recorded in Matthew 28:19.
According to the legal complaint, “One of the methods by which the Plaintiffs and other members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church communicate their religious views is through door to door solicitation, evangelism and the distribution of free literature about the Seventh-day Adventist faith to interested persons.”
Receiving voluntary donations, the lawsuit says, is often the “first step” in someone’s interactions with, and eventual affiliation with, the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and literature evangelists Nathanael De Canal and Joshua Desire. The tickets against De Canal and Desire, which carried potential fines of up to $500 or a penalty of six month’s imprisonment “at hard labor,” are on hold pending a final resolution of the matter, McFarland said.