The Arkansas-Louisiana Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists (the “Adventists”) filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Arkansas, contending that a local ordinance in White Hall, Arkansas (the “City”) restricts its right to religious speech. The ordinance requires that anyone wishing to solicit door-to-door obtain a permit from the City. The Complaint in Arkansas-Louisiana Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, et al., v. City of White Hall, No. 5:16CV013 is available here.
The Adventists claim that the City’s ordinance inhibits its ability to carry out a “Student Literature Evangelism Program.” The complaint alleges that a member of the program was informed by the City that door-to-door activities, without a permit, violated the ordinance.
The complaint describes the ordinance as having several exceptions, including that a “Canvasser” is exempt from the permitting requirement. A Canvasser is defined as
any person who attempts to make personal contact with a resident at his/her residence without prior specific invitation or appointment from the residence for the primary purpose of (1) attempting to solicit support for or against a particular religion, philosophy, ideology, political party, issue, or candidate, even if incidental to such purpose the canvasser accepts the donation of money for or against such case….
Peddlers and Solicitors, however, must comply with the ordinance’s permitting requirements. A “Peddler” is defined as an individual traveling door-to-door in order to offer merchandise for sale. A “Solicitor” includes a person who goes on private property and requests contributions “for political, charitable, religious, or other non-commercial purposes.” The Adventists’ door-to-door activities include offering literature, testimonials and prayers, as well as a request for donations. The City has taken the position that the request for donations qualifies the Adventists as Solicitors instead of Canvassers.
Those individuals who fall within the permitting requirement must apply to the City police department with an application form that the Adventists claim requires disclosure of personal information. The application must also be accompanied by a $50 fee, which the Adventists claim is a “tax” required before they may engage in “protected First Amendment rights within the City.” The Adventists also point out that the ordinance includes no standards guiding the police department’s decision of whether it should grant a given permit and for how long the permit is valid. Further, the Adventists claim there is no avenue for judicial review of the police department’s permitting decision. The Adventists are also concerned that the ordinance limits the time period for door-to-door activities from 7:00 pm to 9:00 am.
The Adventists’ allegations include a prior restraint on speech and unconstitutional limits on freedom of religion in violation of the First Amendment. It also pleads a violation of Due Process, the Arkansas Constitution, and the State’s religious freedom law. A hearing on the Adventists’ request for injunctive relief is currently scheduled for March 25, 2016.
Even though the complaint does not raise the issue, one wonders whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert will influence the court’s decision in this case. Since the City’s ordinance appears to make distinctions based on the content of a speaker’s message, it could run afoul of Gilbert’s holding that regulations making distinctions based on the type of message conveyed are presumptively invalid, even if there is a content-neutral justification.