ALABASTER, Ala. — Student missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church could head back to the streets of Alabaster today after a judge said she found that door-to-door proselytizing wasn't commercial.
The city and church agreed to iron out their differences, but the lawsuit filed by the South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists against the city isn't settled. U.S. District Court Judge Karon Bowdre said she would rule on the complaint March 2013. Until then, the city has agreed to allow proselytizing without a permit, according to the Shelby County Reporter.
“We didn’t want to penalize these college kids who are conducting their scholarship work while we sort everything out with the church,” City Attorney Jeff Brumlow said after Wednesday's hearing before Bowdre.
Adventist Review reported that Bowdre 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.
The federal lawsuit was filed after a member of the church's Summer Student Missionary Program was ticketed in June by an Alabaster police officer for allegedly selling books door-to-door without a city permit. The group suspended its program in the Birmingham suburb after the citation.
Two Alabaster ordinances place restrictions on any person or group engaged in pamphleteering or solicitation anywhere in the city, The Birmingham News reported. One is a business license permit ordinance and the other is a solicitation ordinance, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states the Alabaster permitting process is lengthy and financially burdensome, involving a review by a city council-appointed committee and the potential for a public hearing, but no opportunity for appeal.
"These ordinances directly target, and impose a prior restraint upon, speech afforded the highest levels of protection by the First Amendment," the lawsuit states. "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."
McFarland told the Adventist Review that 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.
The teams offer free literature about the Seventh-day Adventist faith, engage in verbal evangelism, and solicit charitable donations to help support the program, according to The Birmingham News.
McFarland told the News that the lawsuit filed Friday was the first involving door-to-door solicitations it has had to file in at least a decade.
Many religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, go door-to-door to spread their message. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld this right in two cases, 1943’s Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and 2002’s Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton, the Adventist Review reported, and Bowdre cited Murdock in her comments from the bench.